Slavery and Racism Collections: Telling the whole story

As a race relations collection we inevitably have difficult stories to tell – of oppression, violence and inequality. How can collections such as ours do this both respectfully and powerfully?

Last week I went along to a talk given by Dr Richard Benjamin, Director of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. If anyone knows about telling difficult stories respectfully, he surely does. Based in Liverpool, once a major port of the transatlantic slave trade, and looking out over the dry docks once used for unloading slave ships, the Museum is already an emotionally charged piece of history, even before we think about its objects and exhibitions.

image of International Slavery Museum entrance

© Elliott Brown (www.flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown)

The Museum started life in 1997 as the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery within the Maritime Museum. Whilst the gallery was an honest and powerful exploration of this dark chapter of Liverpool’s history it suggested, as Dr Benjamin pointed out, that the story of slavery started in Europe. To tell the whole story, you have to show pre-enslavement lives, as well as the continuing legacy of contemporary slavery.

Today, the International Slavery Museum comprises three galleries:

  1. Life in West Africa
  2. Enslavement and the Middle Passage
  3. Legacies and the Campaign Zone

Visitors pass from the colourful snapshot of African lives and traditions, through the visceral experience of transportation and enslavement, to the complex legacies of racism, resistance and contemporary black identity. The Museum commemorates but also ‘loosens the shackles’ of slavery; widening its historical context and exploring what it means for today’s society.

Commemorating a violent history through the objects of that history is tricky. Dr Benjamin talked about the fine line between creating an unflinching visual narrative and ‘a little shop of horrors’. Iron shackles, racist cartoons, a Klu Klux Klan outfit – the Museum doesn’t collect these things for the sake of collecting, but collects items that they can use to tell the story of slavery, through exhibitions, learning programmes and research.

This prompted me to reflect on some of the more problematic parts of our collection, such as the fascist literature that we hold in our archive. There’s not a lot of it – we don’t feel the need to preserve boxes and boxes of National Front posters for the future – but the items that we do have are enough to tell the story and put other material into context. For example, the fascist magazine Spearhead is of limited value on its own, beyond the shock factor at the racist ideas expressed in its pages. But look at it alongside the anti-fascist publication Searchlight from the same time and you get a rich picture of the extreme political struggles taking place in the 1970s and 80s. You have to hear the voices of oppression in order to understand the actions of resistance.

Dr Benjamin talked about the difficult ethical conversations he and his collections team have when they acquire or display a new item – this sounded very familiar. Archiving the history of racism is quite a responsibility. We have to keep reminding ourselves of the stories we are trying to tell, what our collection needs in order to tell the whole story, and what role this story can play in learning lessons for the future.

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