Wednesday July 25, 2007
"Black history was important to me," he says. "I grew up in a small village in Yorkshire. It was a traditional white, working-class place. My childhood was very good, but I did often encounter blatant racism."
For Benjamin, 36, who has been in post six months, being made director of the museum gives him the opportunity to "tell the story" of transatlantic slavery in a way that appeals to a cross-section of people. He hopes his knowledge and understanding of the issues will make a real difference to its future.
The aim is to build on the museum's origins as the much smaller-scale Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, Benjamin says, by exploring "a bigger picture", encompassing a longer historical period. There are also plans to develop more audio-visual elements and large research and learning centres. "This is definitely for people who have no understanding of what a slave is or was," he says. "But it will also cater to academics and tourists. It will work on many levels."
Benjamin says that what particularly excites him is that the museum will not remain limited to an examination of the past, or indeed to how the international slave trade impacted on black people and communities. The broader legacy of the slave trade is something he hopes to examine in more detail. "The next phase is to look at the issues around contemporary slavery. We will look at sex-trafficking. I'd like the museum to confront and challenge modern slavery."
Benjamin attributes the vision for the museum to David Fleming, director of National Museums, Liverpool, to which the new museum belongs. But he has his own ambitions for it and they are rooted in his personal and academic background. "This is important to me. I would like to think that black people in the rest of the world will know there is somewhere they can visit that covers the issue of slavery historically and in a contemporary context."
· The International Slavery Museum opens on August 23, which is Slavery Remembrance Day. More information at liverpoolmuseums.org.uk
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