Interview with John Hughes

John Hughes was Project Manager for the Wilberforce Project, at Wilberforce House Museum, Hull, during the marking of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. In this interview John Hughes gives a guided tour through the exhibition. Interviewing John Hughes were Helen Weinstein and Geoff Cubitt, identified as JH, HW and GC respectively.

HW: Firstly could you talk me through what some of the new galleries contain?

JH: First and foremost it's important to remember that Wilberforce House is a Grade 1 listed building; it's probably one of Hull's most historic, surviving buildings. So architecturally it's a very grand building and it's a building that inspires a great deal of affection with the public of Hull.

GC: Did that impact on the way you approached the redesign of the museum?

JH: Of course, we had to think very long and hard about what we wanted to go into the museum. Through consultation as well, we noted the strong affection for the actual building, so we felt it appropriate to dedicate the first gallery to the house and home, to the architectural features of the house and to the people who had lived there. There have been three main families that have lived in Wilberforce house; the Thornton family, the Lister family and of course the Wilberforce family. In the next gallery spaces we set about contextualising Wilberforce. We felt that it was appropriate to put him in the context of his birthplace and home. Therefore, we now have two galleries on the ground floor that are specifically related to him and where visitors can find out about his family, his schooling and his early political career. It's also an opportunity to put on display the showpieces of the collection, like his court dress and his personal library. In the Abolition Campaign gallery we put Wilberforce in context with his fellow campaigners. We gave further wall space to other campaigners, female campaigners, Black abolitionists, and also those who opposed the abolition campaign as well. It has created a more holistic approach to that aspect of the story.

GC: So you can thereby place the house in the wider context of Hull's local history?

JH: Absolutely, that was an important objective for the exhibition. Visitors are then invited to go upstairs whether by the main stairway or by the newly installed lift. The lift was part of scheme to provide greater access to the museum for our visitors. I'm sure you can imagine putting a lift in a Grade One listed building was quite a challenge, and it was! A small point to make as well is that to harmonise the visitor experience, on the main stairwell we have another star piece of our collection, Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, which is painted by Francois-Auguste Biard. Within the lift we've got an interpretation panel with that same picture and text content so that visitors have the same experience.

HW: What's the next gallery that the visitor would come to?

JH: The next gallery that visitors are invited into is on the upper floor and is the main Slavery Gallery. We felt that it was important to tell a story in terms of a journey. So the first section of the gallery that the visitor comes into contextualises slavery. We felt it was important for people to be mindful of what slavery is, and to look at other civilisations who have enslaved people. Also how the transatlantic slave trade came about. For the first few months after the opening, we displayed a set of Iron Age chains - a significant loan secured from the Museum of Wales. This made a very poignant centrepiece to that gallery, the fact that these chains were thousands of years old, but also depicting slavery. Moving on from that, we move into the West African Cultures Gallery and in a sense it is an opportunity to strongly refute the myth that African history really started at the point of the transatlantic slave trade. We wanted to celebrate West African culture and to convey the many different cultures that West Africa is comprised of. I think it's quite a vibrant gallery, one which uses audiovisuals to complement the objects on display. Another of the main features in there is the installation of a storytelling tree made from metal. This is a great way to engage children with the gallery and we have lessons and activities beneath the tree.

HW: And from that section where do you take the visitor next?

JH: We then enter the subject of the transatlantic slave trade. There's a space here that deals with the actual capture and enslavement of African people and sets the scene really for the whole transatlantic slave trade galleries. It states that African people were captured and enslaved. Many were taken from the interior and were then walked hundreds of miles along trails to the coast where they would be held in slave forts and sold many times before their journey across the Atlantic. We use audio narratives in this section, first hand accounts that we have drawn from our own collection and wider collections. These are played in a quite intimate way where the characters are almost whispering. This gives a feeling of confinement and reinforces this aspect of capture and imprisonment. We use accounts from people that were enslaved but we also use accounts of those who did the enslaving. We feel that it was important throughout to show a balanced view, so people can appreciate the story as a whole.

HW: Were there any challenges in this section?

JH: One of the main challenges I suppose of this particular area was how to look at the subject of when enslaved African people left their homeland. They would do this through leaving the dungeons of the slave forts through a narrow exit point known as the 'Gate' or the 'Door of No Return'. This is obviously something which is immensely significant, and in our initial scheme we looked at how we could interpret this scene. We considered perhaps a physical reinterpretation of these doors, although through consultation we felt some of our users might find this a difficult thing to physically walk through. So through a process of consultation and through a lot of discussion with the team, the solution we devised was to show the 'Gate of No Return' visually, through the use of some very artistic, stark black and white images in a visual presentation. We worked with a local artist Isaac Acheampong to do this, using his black and white photographic images of Ghanaian slave forts. It's very stark but we feel it is actually quite a poignant part of the journey through the museum and that it is an appropriate solution to what was a very difficult subject to interpret.

HW: And the next gallery deals with the actual slave trade itself?

JH: Yes, the next gallery deals with the triangular trade - the actual, physical trading of people and goods.. We felt it was important to establish that there was a huge trade in goods and that people, in this instance, were regarded as units of currency or units to be traded in the exchange of particular items. We feel the gallery conveys this quite strongly. We have a showcase that displays many of the things that would have been traded. For example cowry shells, glass beads, manilas. Another of the things we have on display is firearms and guns. These were manufactured in places like Birmingham and then exported to West Africa in their thousands specifically for the slave trade.

HW: What are main messages of the exhibition?

JH: I think one of the main messages is that African people were treated just as units to be traded. They were stripped of their identity, their culture, even their names; there was a complete disregard for their humanity. I think that our use of first-hand narratives humanises the people and I'm saying 'people' intentionally as we want our visitors to regard them as people and not just as slaves.

HW: Can you talk me through the contemporary galleries?

JH: Yes, they could be deemed as almost quite a separate space within the museum really. Visitors have to physically cross over the dividing central passageway on the ground floor of Wilberforce House to enter. In here we convey that slavery is still in existence today. There are many millions of people who are enslaved in some form or another; whether that's through child labour, the sex industry or sweat shops. We also felt that it was important that we draw attention to a lot of the products that we buy today that are made in circumstances where people are exploited. The trainers you wear, some of the products you eat, or certain things like cocoa and oranges and a lot of the 'must-have' items of today.

HW: In terms of content that's a huge departure form the formal period room setting that was there previously in the museum, how did you come up with that?

JH: I think in terms of content we wanted to make sure that people were aware that slavery still exists today in many different forms. We explain about the products that people buy are the products of certain elements of slavery as well as about the legacies of slavery and the fact that racism is still very prevalent in our society today. We raise those issues; we have posters on display that come from the campaign, 'Rock against Racism'. We also look at the African Diaspora within the context of Britain; how people of African heritage are popular figures in our society today. We're able to display objects that have been donated or loaned from eminent people, such as David Lammy MP, his Maiden speech to the House of Commons, Ian Wright, the footballer, his football jersey. So there are different things that appeal to different audiences and different ages.

GC: Is there space here for more local concerns?

JH: In the second contemporary gallery the focus is of a more local context and conveys Hull's links with Freetown in Sierra Leone. As Hull has many historic links with Sierra Leone we wanted to celebrate them. Perhaps my favourite part of the gallery is the area called 'Hull, who are you?' This is a system of small showcases just showing very ordinary objects from the diverse community within Hull. What is so appealing about this is that the objects are so ordinary but they have a particular resonance and significance for their owners, demonstrating diversity on your doorstep.

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