Liverpool’s Talking Objects

Posted on: 26 October 2021 by Clara Wilson in Posts

Liverpool possess a maturity in acknowledging the city’s own legacy and history with the transatlantic slave trade. Central museums and galleries in Liverpool are leading initiatives to re-interpret the city’s past. But how can the objects residing in these museums tell their own stories?

The face of museums are changing. Across the country, curators and historians have sought to reinterpret and reignite debates surrounding the origin of much of their collections. The surge of Black Lives Matter protests, particularly the toppling of a certain statue in Bristol, foregrounded the need for many to see themselves reflected in the history of this country. This activism became uniquely personal and poignant as it attacked British slavery’s biggest, but most secretive legacy: institutional racism. 

But how are institutions such as the British Museum or the Walker Gallery in Liverpool supposed to overturn their established narratives? Every museum and gallery has had to examine and recontextualise their objects and collections. In 2020, The National Trust issued a report into 93 of their properties. The report established links those properties had with ‘Colonialism and Historic Slavery’. The origin of many ornaments were researched as well as the role some property owners had in the Slave Trade and how the profits from this role created these properties. There was nationwide shock and anger, and misinformation that the National Trust was becoming ‘woke’ and hiding their objects in fear of offending. This is wrong, and if we set up decolonising our collections as a ‘war’, it will only serve to exemplify the remnants of colonialism in our society, and perpetuate existing racial hatred. 

What must be made clear is the difference between the objects that have links to colonialism and slavery. The first kind of object are those that were seized or taken under colonial rule, often more likely to have cultural significance to their country of origin. For example, in April 2021, the ‘Benin Bronzes’, seized under German colonial rule were returned to modern-day Nigeria from Berlin’s Ethnogisches Museum. There is an argument that the very presence of objects like this in Western museums transforms the object’s story to be one of strife and violence, and only serves to perpetuate the coloniser’s triumph of their rule. 

The second type of object – present in Liverpool’s Walker Gallery – are those bought or created with the profits of slavery. In the gallery’s display of Neo-Classical sculptors, a new central board of information has already been erected to explain the current research the gallery is doing to establish each object’s link with Liverpool’s role in the slave trade. For example, the Liverpool merchant, Henry Sandbach, owned a substantial collection of these sculptures, which he commissioned and paid for with the profits he made from his plantations which held enslaved people. A simple information board, acknowledging the research the gallery is undertaking allows the objects to ‘speak’ their own histories, beyond simply their artistic and economic value. 

Laura Pye, The Director of National Museums Liverpool stated that the legacy of slavery in Liverpool is ‘everywhere you look’. Acknowledging the city’s past allows it to positively construct its future as the country’s lead city in reparation and decolonising projects. This re-examination and listening to objects can only be a positive, as diversifying collections in a global context will only widen the demographic of possible visitors and museum workers, as more people’s heritages are displayed with honesty. This active engagement with history and current human rights issues is something that Liverpool’s own International Slavery Museum champions. They pride themselves in being actively involved in international efforts to end modern-day forms of slavery, as well as being the only museum in the country where one can report a hate crime. The objects can speak their history, and we must listen and use their past to inform what we can actively do to construct our future. 

It is not a clear cut process. The tension surrounding object ownership should be used to open up new relationships which will give opportunities for international partnerships and museum loans, which will only deepen our understanding of global history. To do this it must be object by object. The objects must be allowed to tell their own story, and this is done by sensitively tracing origins and provenance, as well as using their stories to ignite modern issues and debates. 

Keywords: museums, slavery.