By Rebecca Nelson, Wilberforce Institute
Alongside being part of the Antislavery Usable Past project, my PhD experience also includes academic training with the Heritage Consortium. This comprises a group of Northern universities, committed to enhancing applicable heritage skills among students with related research interests. This has worked very well with my interest in museums and their engagement with and interpretation of antislavery across Britain. Part of the assessment for this training was a placement, which I wanted to do somewhere that had real relevance for my research – what better place than Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum (ISM)?
I worked at the museum for nearly a month, a relatively short time in the scheme of my PhD, but things move fast in the museum environment and I feel that during that time I had a wealth of opportunities which enabled me to get to see first-hand the work the ISM does, the challenges it faces, and to get to know the team behind it all. My experiences included conducting research to answer visitor enquiries, proof reading text for new exhibitions, transcribing letters from British plantation owners in Guiana from the 1780s, and adding new museum acquisitions to the digital database.
It was with one of these new acquisitions that I felt I had the most challenging experience in terms of my thinking about museums, and my skills working with historic objects – but also the most rewarding. Shortly before I arrived on placement, the museum had received a parcel of newly acquired items for the collection, featuring a range of items relating to slavery and the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. Included in these were twenty copies of the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the weekly newspaper published by the Black Panther Party between the 1960s and the 1980s. At their peak, the newspapers had a global readership of some 300,000 and were written with the main aim of informing, educating and organising the Party’s members. In each issue there were articles about violent clashes between the Party and their opponents, plans for further aggressive action, and reports from trials and sentencing hearings, usually concerning the party leaders. There were also party rules, membership forms and adverts for merchandise.
Rebecca working with the newspapers
At first, I found these quite difficult to read. Usually I feel a sense of detachment towards museums objects, but the newspapers were tough – strongly worded, and accompanied with graphic images – and I struggled to imagine how these items could be made accessible to the museum’s audience. On second reading though, I started to notice there was another side to these newspapers. The Party operated a wide-ranging social improvement programme, ensuring education facilities for black children, a nationwide free breakfast effort and buses for those without transport. Their call for black communities across America was “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace”, absolutely essential rights we would argue now – perhaps it was the methods utilised by the Party which has led to their ambivalent historical record.
Cataloguing these items gave me a chance to reflect on the role of the International Slavery Museum, and of museums in general. Clearly the ISM is interested in exploring, engaging with and encouraging its visitors to think about legacies of slavery – this directly applies to the circumstances which facilitated the rise of the Black Panther Party and formed the motivation for all of their work. Museums have an essential role in preserving all history, not just the parts that are easily understood. To have a full understanding of the past, for academics and the general public, it is essential that items like these are kept somewhere. Museums then can facilitate a safe space for engagement with these items, in a proper historical context, surrounded by people who can offer further advice and support as necessary. As clichéd as it may sound, there is always more than one side to the story, and museums must seek to offer that in whatever capacity – no matter how difficult, emotionally or politically. It is their duty, and particularly so for the ISM which defines itself as a socially responsible institution, to work with objects like this to enhance both our understanding of the past, and the present.