I visit a lot of museums when I travel, and I particularly look for the ones that highlight the history and culture of the places I'm visiting. And sometimes, too often perhaps, I come away wondering, "Well, where's the rest of the story?"
That was definitely not our experience in Liverpool last summer, as we found three significant museums that explore the area's rich maritime and mercantile history, and the far less pleasant story of how the city grew rich, financed in large part by the Atlantic slave trade. No punches pulled.
The three museums are all clustered along the River Mersey waterfront, where much of the history has taken place, and is taking place. In one building, built as part of the huge Victorian Albert Docks complex, we visited the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum. Nearby, in a building of its own, we went to Museum of Liverpool.
We started at the Maritime Museum; nothing conscious—it happens to be on the lower floors of the building. But it was a good choice; we got a clear picture of how Liverpool's role as a major port (for many years Britain's largest) helped the city grow from a small town to a huge city, whose working class centered on the port for employment.
Fancy dining rooms from the great liners...but there's also a steerage experience to walk through.
We also gained an understanding of how much the city's growth made it not only a huge cargo port, but the pre-eminent shipper of human cargo across the Atlantic in the 19th century. We're not talking here about slavery, but about the huge flow of emigrants from Europe, and especially from Ireland, who flowed through the port. In a sense, Liverpool and New York were the twin terminals of the trade.
They were also paired in the slave trade. Merchants of Liverpool and New York were the biggest financiers, facilitators and profiteers from that trade, even though the slaves were mostly taken from Africa directly to North America where they were sold, and the profit invested in goods and resources traded between Britain and America.
Our next visit was to learn more about that slave trade, and the museum's broad-scale name is matched with its mission. The exhibits are not limited to the Atlantic trade and Liverpool's part in it; it looks at slavery from every time, and up to the present day, when in some places slavery continues, and where forced labor, child labor and human trafficking are common.
The instruments of the slave trade are visible in the museum, and the conditions in which enslaved people were carried are very visible in the museum.
But the museum also shows the culture and crafts of the people who were enslaved, and their struggles for freedom; that's important because it kept us focused not only on slavery, but on slaves...on people, not historic abstractions.
Carvings and wall paintings by Igbo people of Africa. And a reminder that freedom itself was not enough. In Jamaica, for instance, slave-owners were compensated when slavery was ended; the slaves got nothing.
The next day, a rainy one, we went to the Museum of Liverpool and found ourselves in the midst of an impromptu concert. Well, not quite impromptu: it had been scheduled for the plaza outside, until the weather closed in.
About 60 local singing enthusiasts whose group is part of a national movement called Got2Sing! entertained an equally enthusiastic crowd of museum visitors. We were sorry when the weather cleared and they left!
Upstairs, we met Liverpool's claims to fame...and a footnote on the sign referring visitors to the Slavery Museum. We found a lot of that in Liverpool; where in America we often allow ourselves to think of slavery as something that happened 'down south' and has no trail to the present, Liverpool has broken that habit.
Liverpool's American connections get their share of attention, too; Liverpool was the port for Manchester, whose mills relied on slave-grown cotton from the U.S. and whose interests led to widespread British support for the Confederacy until late in the war.
Liverpool's industrial history is evident throughout the museum. Railroads are a feature in part because the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, in 1830, became the first steam-powered passenger railroad in the world, although only weeks ahead of the U.S. and France.
The Lion, above and below, was built in 1838 for the LMR; from 1859 to 1920 it continued working as a stationary boiler.
There's a timeline of Liverpool history; this fellow is near the beginning; the next two are further along, with the third highlighting the city's 19th century.
And a panorama of Liverpool, with the Albert Docks at the right, and the Three Graces just behind the Landing Stage, where you see the liner loading. The Three Graces are Liverpool landmarks and pride: left to right, the Royal Liver (pronounced lye-ver) Building, the Cunard Building, and the Dock and Harbor Board.
View from the Museum's window, looking east up the Mersey.
A car from the elevated tram line that for many years was the heart of Liverpool's public transit system, and below, a car of a different sort, just to complete the day. Made in Liverpool...of course!