28 November 2014
Edward Rushton, poet, activist and scouser has been forgotten and left in the margins of our history... until now. As part of this years’ festival, DaDaFest have partnered with The International Slavery Museum, The Museum of Liverpool and the Victoria Gallery and Museum to celebrate the life of this fascinating figure through a series of displays featuring at each site. Review by Jade French
I was eager to find out who Edward Rushton was, and how a blind man in the 18th century radically used art to challenge the social injustices of his time.
Arriving at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, it's hard not to be impressed by its tiled, marbled grandness. The theme of this display 'Rebellious Politics', aims to present Rushton’s human rights campaigning through the written word, with particular attention to Rushton’s bookshop in Paradise Street, which became a centre for Liverpool’s 'Friends of Freedom' (a national agitation for social justice).
The exhibition room is very small, but houses some truly special objects. A portrait of Rushton, on loan from Liverpool's Royal School of the Blind, shows him with an eye patch. I later learnt that Rushton became blind during his time spent as a sailor in the slave trade. Rushton was at sea when the highly contagious Ophthalmia struck many of the slaves. Rushton was appalled by the conditions the slaves were subject to and began helping them, resulting in contracting the disease himself. These first hand experiences of the horrific slave trade shaped Rushton to becoming an abolitionist in later life, which the other displays explore further.
Initially I found the objects difficult to connect to, the space feels like a stuffy museum. Books are displayed in cases and there are paintings, images and excerpts on the walls. As radical as Rushton is, I felt some video or audio would have brought some life into the space.
Next I headed to the International Slavery Museum where the display focuses on 'Lambasting George Washington'. Entering the museum, I am confronted by cases containing shackles, branding devices and whips. Suddenly the choice splitting the exhibition into three makes sense.
DaDaFest have provided the audience with a rich context in which to view the displays. Being surrounded by these haunting items of slavery highlights the importance of Rushton's legacy. Although the display was small I gained a poignant experience, and no doubt a better insight.
In the museum you are able to listen to several of the correspondence and poems by Rushton, including the letter to George Washington exposing his hypocrisy as an owner of slaves whilst being the leader of a country, which proclaimed liberty for all.
As I explored the rest of the museum, some old street signage caught my eye. 'Jamaica Street', 'Dukes Street', streets I regularly visit, are all named in connection with the slave trade on which Liverpool thrived. The city and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth, which is still visible all over Liverpool through its buildings.
One of Rushton's poems which you can listen to in the museum gave me a chilling insight: “Poor bird, tis' strange that thou shall roam, so far from thy sequester'd home, Shouldst leave the pure, the silent shade, for all this filth, this crash of trade”.
Finally, the last site I visited was the Museum of Liverpool. In the foyer by the shop you can see some of the display and the rest is upstairs in The Peoples Gallery, an inspiring space mapping Liverpool's histories and cultures and the perfect setting for Rushton, a true peoples champion. Against the backdrop of the Liver buildings, a case titled ‘And Learn to respect Human Rights’ depicts Rushton’s denouncement of the notorious press gang and his campaign for the establishment of the first blind school in Britain. One of the objects on display is the beautiful hand written register of the Liverpool Blind School.
“Never heard of the fella' and I'm a born and bred scouser!” I overheard from a gentlemen whilst admiring Rushton's portrait. This exhibition was also my introduction to this mans extraordinary life, who through his poetry consistently gave voice to the oppressed, despite of his government, employment or his blindness.