Interview with Richard Benjamin

Photo of Richard Benjamin

Richard Benjamin is the Head of the International Slavery Museum, National Museums Liverpool. In this interview he talks about the challenges of the museum displays and the important resource the institution has become for its visitors. Richard Benjamin is interviewed by Helen Weinstein and they are referred to as RB and HW throughout this edited interview.

HW: What were some of the hardest areas involved in the creation of the International Slavery Museum?

RB: I think one of the biggest areas was the issue of text. Labels were a big issue. The designers obviously had wanted the labels to look a certain way, to fit in with the designs of the majority of the display cases. But you can never have enough words for the curators. In the end we decided fifteen words would constitute a basic label for the majority of items. Now that struck horror into the hearts of some and it is difficult for someone to sum up an object in fifteen words. But we decided that we'd make it uniform because otherwise it would look uneven and it would effect the aesthetics. When it came to subjects, the curators were adamant that they really needed more space. We called these extended labels and they were given fifty to seventy-five. You had to edit the text again and again. It was just really difficult. The actual text panels, the main information panels, they were up to a hundred and fifty words. Even then you're looking at a subject such as reparations and you have to describe that in a hundred and fifty words. That’s why the text panels took over 30 drafts to do. Actually when you look at it now I can see the point.

HW: Can you talk me through the process of how it was decided what would be in and what would be out. Where there were particular areas where it was hard to make decisions.

RB: One of the things I had the biggest influences on was the text. Before I started there were about five people who had written at least two or three text panels, but when you put them together they're written in a very different tone. Some people say that's as it should be, but when the overall design is uniform equally the tone had to be to a certain degree. What I did was I spoke to all the section leaders and eventually what they did was propose a final version to me and the director David Fleming. I found it a very interesting process developing the final versions and there was a lot of editing. I wanted the tone uniform, it’s a balance between readability and content. So that was difficult but I'm quite happy with the result.

HW: What did you want the tone to be?

RB: Well it’s interesting. I wouldn’t say we were looking for a passive voice or a neutral voice we went the other way we thought there were other areas that people had to realise they were taking a stance on it. For instance, if we were talking about life in the Americas we always stressed that Africans within the Americas were their own agents of resistance. So you’ve got some tension there with the whole concept of abolitionism; what was abolitionism? What do you focus when you use the term abolitionism? Do you use it with English abolitionists or do you turn that into the concept of African and Black abolitionists? There are quite big areas. We can’t answer that in a hundred and fifty words but at least we can say we do believe very much in stressing continuously the resistance of Africans. Well some people have said you’ve taken away for instance away from Wilberforce and Roscoe or indeed the Royal Navy, and it’s not taken away from that, it’s that we're not a museum about abolitionism; we're a bigger museum than that.

HW: Well if you had to say what is the museum about what are the main things you want to convey?

RB: I would say resistance, in one word, I think that’s an incredibly simple way to put it, but if there was one word that described it in each of the galleries I would say resistance. So life in West Africa, you resist people's stereotype that there was even a civilisation or continent called Africa. Ten or fifteen years ago people didn't all assume that humankind originated in Africa, there's only one text panel on it in the museum but at least its there. It’s showing we're resisting the traditional view on this. You go into the Middle Passage and there’s resistance again, very much focused on the resistance of the peoples in the Americas, trying not to romanticise plantation life, but again trying not to make Africans passive. We don’t use words like passive; we use words like rebellion, revolt, strength, pride. Then in the legacy section that's the bit that really is resisting, because we’re actively resisting racism and discrimination today. That's why we've just opened up the Anthony Walker Education Centre. That’s an act of resistance against racists in Liverpool. It’s saying we don’t believe that this person should be murdered and that it won’t be resigned to history as one Black person who just lost his life at the hands of racists. His name lives on.

HW: Do you want to target new or specific audiences with the museum?

RB: Yes. I mean you definitely want more Black and ethnic minority people in the gallery, in museums generally, and if we're a conduit for it then good. I don't think Black people should just come to a museum on slavery though, but you know we have a lot of information in the legacy section that will appeal to people. Black British people brought up in this country, at the moment there is no Black history museum in this country if there was we'd work with them really closely.

HW: Can you talk me through how do you see the new museum addressing local, national and international contexts?

RB: I think a lot of it is the issues you focus on. We have a global inequalities section, where you have to be careful, you’re not able to go there and accuse large companies of how they’ve mismanaged their African resources. But it again gets a lot of people thinking and again because we’re a national museum and there’s a lot of kudos associated with us then it’s on a fairly big scale. Locally, we cover issues on the past and the present, people realise that we're actively working with them today. I think that very important they know that we are another arm in the struggle as such. I think that’s incredibly important, it’s not just about coming in and visiting the museum. If we can add any weight to that, that’s really positive. Internationally, you always want to bring people in from aboard. I like to think even though we have a strong emphasis on Liverpool and Britain, we cover such a broad range of the subject that it will also be appealing to people that come from other countries. Some people have said that in the legacy section its quite heavily placing the emphasis on America and to some degree that's true. But America is a major player in this and we’ve got very close relationships with American museums, so I think it’s very important that we get African Americans visitors. So I don’t make apologies for that, emphasis can shift and there’s also ways and time to change things, but at the moment I think we got the balance about right.

HW: What was you impression of how the new museum is being used by audiences?

RB:s I think its working very well. It’s engaging people, its making people leave comments like, ‘I’ve never thought of it this way’ or, ‘I think its time we had a museum on this.’ Not one person has said that I don't think you've done justice to the subject. I'm not saying we've done it in the best way, the way everyone would like, but the fact that we’re tackling the subject has gone down very well, every time I go through the galleries everyone seems very engaged with it.

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