Navigating the Transatlantic Slave Trade – International Slavery Museum

The transatlantic slave trade was the largest forced displacement of people in history. It’s estimated that around twelve million Africans were kidnapped, chained and shipped across the Atlantic to live out their lives in chattel slavery labouring for the European colonists of the so-called ‘New World’. Of this staggering number, approximately three million enslaved Africans were transported by the British Empire. The history of the transatlantic slave trade is therefore very much a British history and as a result is part of many schools’ KS3 History programmes.

Located in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the International Slavery Museum (part of National Museums Liverpool) sits on the site that some two hundred years ago was home to one of the busiest ports in England that saw the exchange of goods produced by enslaved Africans. Albert Dock therefore played a key role in the triangular trade of the transatlantic slave trade. With this spatial and historical connection to slavery, the International Slavery Museum sees itself as an organisation with a strong duty to increase “the understanding of transatlantic, chattel and other forms of enslavement.”

Above: The building which houses the International Slavery Museum, but also the Merseyside Maritime Museum (Image provided by National Museums Liverpool)

Adam Duckworth, Team Leader for the Learning and Participation Team at the museum, is one of those involved in carrying out this bold mission. Adam kindly offered to explain in detail the museum’s ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery: Virtual classroom’ sessions, which are aimed at KS3 learners. Thanks to his contribution, this article is able to give an insight into some of the challenging yet impactful work that Adam and his colleagues undertake at the International Slavery Museum.

‘Understanding transatlantic slavery: Virtual classroom’

Above: Model of a typical slave ship filled with enslaved Africans, one of several objects used in ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery’ (Image provided by National Museums Liverpool)

Covering key historical topics such as forced migration, enslavement on plantations, and abolition movements, ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery’ aims to deepen the learners understanding of these challenging and complex histories, while also demonstrating their connection to contemporary issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

The learners are guided by a facilitator through a series of activities using historical sources and artefacts from the museum’s collection. At intermittent points, an actor is used to make the reading of historical sources more engaging and dynamic, while the use of a Black academic is used to challenge potential prejudices, misconceptions and stereotypes of Black people. The facilitator binds all this content together by engaging in a line of questioning that encourages understanding and empathy of the struggle of people who have historically faced and are currently still facing persecution and discrimination on the grounds of race.

Above: Ceramic plate picturing a shackled slave pleading for freedom, one of several objects used in ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery’ (Image provided by National Museums Liverpool)

Like many virtual sessions around at the moment, ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery’ is a product of adapting an in-person session into virtual format due to Covid-19 restrictions. The virtual workshop is very similar in nature to the in-person session but of course bears some differences in structure and delivery. For example, the fifty-minute virtual session delivered through the medium of Microsoft Teams is slightly shorter in length than the in-person session and features no opportunity to explore the galleries or physical spaces of the museum but does however offer a variety of pre-recorded and live-streamed content as well as various session materials.

Delivering the session in this hybrid format helps keep the workshop engaging but also utilises the convenience of pre-recorded content, as well as the more personal interaction gained from live streaming. Commenting on the benefits of live streaming interactions with the objects, Adam explained that:

“Objects are carriers of histories and emotions. By showing students artefacts live during the workshop, rather than images of them, we’ve found this interaction still evokes strong responses and heartfelt discussions.”

The notion of ‘Zoom fatigue’ (the increasingly common disillusionment with virtual meeting platforms) appears to be at an all-time high. Indeed, many students have for the last year or so (currently June 2021 at the time of writing) have had to engage in their lessons through a screen. The potential for burnout and exhaustion among learners is therefore currently very high and should not be underestimated. It’s important to remember then just how fresh, exciting, and engaging museum virtual sessions need to be, in order to really provide a unique learning experience that differs from the current norm. 

Supporting learners and teachers

To support learners and teachers through the challenging and often traumatic histories inextricably tied to the transatlantic slave trade, Adam and his team provide an extensive array of pre, during, and post-learning resources to the schools. One example of these materials is the ‘Code of Conduct’ that students and teachers are encouraged to create post-visit. This is designed for the students to practice anti-racism and anti-bullying in their most immediate community, the school. Materials such as these are one of the ways in which Adam and his team aim to support both the learning and wellbeing of the learners through this difficult subject area. The wellbeing element of this is very important and as Adam explained:

“Part of this is being honest with the students that this is a challenging history and to address it honestly and accurately may be distressing. So being clear with students on how they can opt-out of certain parts, share concerns or support one another, are important elements.”

However, it’s not just the learners that need support, it’s also the teachers. Indeed, due to the problematic nature of many of these objects, stories and histories, it can often be difficult to understand the best approach to take. Adam highlighted that “there’s a strong desire from teachers to engage with these challenging histories but there’s a real concern of making mistakes or causing damage by saying or doing the wrong thing”. Clearly then, the International Slavery Museum is taking the right approach. Rather than shying away from difficulty or controversy, they tackle the histories head-on but with clear assistance and guidance for both student and teacher on how to do this as appropriately and safely as possible.

Linking the past to the contemporary 

The International Slavery Museum sees itself very much as a campaigning museum with anti-racist activism being a central part of their programming. Indeed, the museum’s Education Centre is named after Anthony Walker, a young Black man who was murdered in Liverpool in a hate crime. Holding this title, the Education Centre serves as a constant and poignant reminder of the damage and hurt that unchecked racism can lead to. As well as this, the museum prides itself on providing the service of being a third party hate incident reporting centre. ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery’ does not shy away from this activism either. Although much of the session is focused on histories and stories that are part of the transatlantic slave trade, a particular focus is paid to addressing current issues regarding racism and civil rights. Seeing the session and the wider museum as a tool for social change, Adam stated that:

“We want to be relevant to a changing public social agenda. That is to be a tool to not only understand the past but also how that past and its many legacies impact our day to day freedoms, opportunities and aspirations.”

One of the key current themes that is addressed in ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery’ is the Black Lives Matter movement and the surrounding conversations around race, colonialism and empire. The desire to tackle this contemporary topic actually originated from local teachers themselves during consultation work with the Learning and Participation Team after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of the Minneapolis Police. Consultation work such as this is absolutely necessary if you believe that museums shouldn’t be authoritative institutions that are responsible for what histories are discussed and how. Working from what schools want to explore is a necessary starting point in order to facilitate a two-way and reciprocal relationship between the museum and the school. After all, reduced down to their primary functions, museums and schools are spaces for different types of learning. Fostering a mutual and symbiotic relationship is therefore desirable for both parties in order to maximise the learning potential of their partnership.

Above: The International Slavery Museum’s Black Lives Matter statement  (Image provided by National Museums Liverpool)

These current issues are addressed at the end of the session as well in the post session resources. Learners are encouraged to explore the abolition movement and the different individuals and groups who still continue to fight against anti-Black racism today. Similarly, in the post session resources, learners are asked to consider contested monuments, discuss whether they should be retained and explained or removed and replaced. Likewise, they are asked to think of any Black achievers who match the values of our society today. Not only is this work educational but also helps provide inspiration to learners to take action in their own lives and communities by providing real examples of anti-racist practice. Again, this is where the International Slavery Museum really tries to instil their values of anti-racism, social justice and equality into their work.

Concluding thoughts…

The International Slavery Museum is home to a nationally significant yet potentially challenging collection. Interpreting the often uncomfortable objects and likewise problematic stories intertwined with them is no easy task. Furthermore, deconstructing this into a way which is digestible for KS3 learners, some of which may have minimal personal experience in the issues connected to the subject material, while others may have all too much, poses its own problems. Yet through the combination of pre-recorded and live-streamed content, guidance by a facilitator through objects and historical documents and through the use of engaging and thought-provoking questions as well as helpful guidance in pre, during and post-session materials, ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery: Virtual classroom’ provides an opportunity for both student and teacher to engage in the history of the transatlantic slave trade but also the contemporary issues related to race facing Britain and the world today. In doing this, the International Slavery Museum inspires it’s learners not to simply remember but also to act.

A big thank you to Adam Duckworth again for his contribution to the research of this article. If you would like to contact Adam in order to find out more about ‘Understanding transatlantic slavery: Virtual classroom or any of his or his teams related work with National Museums Liverpool you can contact him at the following email address: 

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