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Liverpool is one of the most famous port cities in the world, with a rich history of shipbuilding and maritime expeditions. Although the industry has changed, and the city along with it, there are several excellent local museums that tell the full maritime history of Liverpool, from the positive to the associated crimes against humanity. The Merseyside Maritime Museum outlines the history of the docks & shipping, from their rise to their decline. However, Liverpool also played a role in the transatlantic slave trade, funding the business & building the ships that transported enslaved people from Africa. The International Slavery Museum acknowledges the role that the city’s industry had in these atrocities.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum & International Slavery Museum are located right on the Mersey at the Albert Docks. They’re also near several hop-on, hop-off bus routes. Entry is free, with donations suggested. Both are located in the same building, with the uppermost floor housing the International Slavery Museum.
In addition to the huge museum building, there are also several boats & other items of maritime equipment along the surrounding docks, including the propeller from the Lusitania.
Merseyside Maritime Museum
The Merseyside Maritime Museum (official website) has several floors of exhibits devoted to the seafaring history of Liverpool.
Down in the basement, the “Emigrants to a New World” exhibit is devoted to those who departed via Liverpool to move across the world. Between 1830 and 1930, 9 million people left Liverpool by ship.
Along with the ships, lodging houses and other businesses supported this transportation trade.
This section is also followed by ship models. As time progressed, you can see how ships got bigger and bigger.
Another basement exhibition deals with customs and enforcement. Titled “Seized!”, there are displays discussing everything from counterfeit goods to disease to illegal items such as animals. This section is actually the UK Border Agency National Museum.
The remainder of the basement has realistic mockups of what port life was like, including the docklands as well as the inside of a ship.
The ground floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum tells the full history of the Liverpool waterfront, from the old docks to the current revitalization, including historic photos.
On the first floor, there are exhibits about 20th-century history, particularly relating to war. One large section is devoted to the Lusitania, including memorial items, a model of the ship, and the stories of the people who died.
Another section tells the story of The Battle of the Atlantic & World War II, including lots of signs with stories and photos, as well as items from the era.
Then there are more general exhibits about modern ports, ferries, and cargo. Some of these sections of the Merseyside Maritime Museum feel a bit dated. As one would expect from a museum such as this, there are lots of ship models.
The second floor of the museum has two sections. One is devoted to life on board ships, both past and present. The exhibit covers everything from unions to tattoos to the environment. It highlights the various jobs on the seas, as well as the equipment used for them.
The other section of the 2nd floor is titled “Titanic & Liverpool: The Untold Story.” The Titanic was not built in Liverpool, but Liverpool was the doomed ship’s home port.
The thorough exhibition is packed with displays relating to the ship, telling the stories of some of those who were on board. There is of course a model of the Titanic. There are also newspapers and telegrams from the era. The Titanic exhibit also includes a life jacket and other items from the lifeboats, plus salvaged items from the wreck. The efforts to find the ship are detailed, as are the films subsequently made about it.
Finally, the exhibit ends with lists of all of the passengers on board, separated by class. At first, this doesn’t seem right to do, to segregate people based on status. However, it then becomes clear why they chose to display the names in this manner. With names highlighted by color based on if someone survived or died, this method of display soberly shows how the rich were much more likely to survive.
International Slavery Museum
The top floor of the building is the home of the International Slavery Museum. At the entrance, there are quotes on the walls relating to freedom and slavery.
The International Slavery Museum is separated into three sections: Life in West Africa, Enslavement & the Middle Passage, and Legacy.
The first section, Life in West Africa, provides background about what life was like before people were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Although this section is brief, it helps provide context and humanity by not just starting with tragedy.
The next section, Enslavement & the Middle Passage, comprises the largest part of the International Slavery Museum. This section tells the story of the transatlantic slave trade, and specifically how white Europeans benefited from it. Liverpool was central to this slave trade, and the museum does not shy away from this history.
Part of this exhibit is framed around the voyage of the Essex, which left Liverpool on 13 June 1783 on a slaving voyage. A timeline of historic events is also provided.
There is an intense video section that provides a glimpse into the conditions of ships such as the Essex in the Middle Passage. With scenes on both sides of you, the sounds & sights can only provide a tiny fraction of the full horrors of this journey.
Other exhibits discuss plantation life, including the stories of enslaved people.
Post-slavery, the impact of slave trade & hatred did not end. Exhibits about racism & discrimination show how these attitudes have continued to be pervasive.
Finally, the Legacy section ends on a note of recognition. The stories of Liverpool’s Black community are told here, including contributions to local art, music, and food. There’s also some contemporary art relating to the themes of the museum. Other displays remind visitors that global inequalities and exploitation still exist today.
The International Slavery Museum is a powerful exhibition about centuries of horrific global history that Liverpool played a significant role in. It was good to see that it was just as crowded as the Merseyside Maritime Museum below. We need many more museums like it around the world, especially in the United States. I’ve visited the excellent civil rights & social justice museums of Montgomery, Alabama, but we need many more museums like these to fully tell the scale of the history of slavery & racism around the world.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum & International Slavery Museum are two intertwined museums that tell the full history of Liverpool’s docks. The International Slavery Museum in particular acknowledges that this maritime history included exploitation & death. They are both great sites to visit to get a fuller history of Liverpool. For even more nearby history, visit the Museum of Liverpool or take a Liverpool Beatles tour.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Liverpool, check out these Liverpool hotels.