Interview with Jonathan King

Jonathan King is the Keeper of the Department of Africa, Indian Ocean and Americas at the British Museum. In this short interview he talks about the exhibitions set in place by the British Museum for the bicentenary of 1807 and the problems faced in creating a programme around a traumatic past. Interviewing Jonathan King are Geoff Cubitt and Helen Weinstein, referred to as JK, GC and HW respectively.

HW: Could you begin with telling me what the exhibitions were that were put in place by the British Museum relating to the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade?

JK: Well firstly, La Bouche de Roi is an installation by Romuald Hazoumé, the purpose of which is to explore the business of the traffic of petrol today in, and beyond, Nigeria. Fabric of the Nation introduced the history of Ghana since independence in 1957. It concerns the process of textile printing in Ghana and particularly the commemorative textiles which mark the creation of schools, businesses, royal visits, the crowning and instalment of kings in Ghana. It was of course from Danish Dutch Portuguese and British forts and castles that slaves were transported to the Americas. This exhibition was a very useful way of describing the history of the state through the display of 150 different textiles. The Caribbean before Columbus exhibited a series of Taino hardwood sculptures of forest and mountain spirits. These were used by Shamans as a source of knowledge and power. Inhuman Traffic is to do with the development of the abolition movement with Wilberforce and Clarkson and the propaganda which emerged out of it, leading to the abolition of the trade in 1807. This of course, then feeds back into La Bouche de Roi, which is an artwork inspired by the design of the Brookes, the slave ship whose image was used by the abolitionists from the 1780s.

HW: How does this set of programming compare to other kinds of seasons?

JK: It was a very different kind of event; the kind of festivals that normally happen in the museum would be very culture and continent specific - about China or Islam for instance. In that sense it was a very innovative event. What we did was take exhibitions from two continents and bring them together to commemorate a specific moment in history. In a sense it was of necessity a more innovative concept than usual because the material culture about the abolition of slavery is strictly limited.

GC: Just before we talk about that I was just wondering about something else. I understand what you're saying about the problems involved with the objects, but were there any problems about the objects that were being used in the exhibitions here, in deciding what kinds of objects to use and what purpose to use them for?

JK: I'm very interested in those questions and actually one of the things that arose from the season was a project with University College London. They went to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and raised funding to organise a series of workshops called Extreme Collecting. This is about difficult objects, but is not actually to do with slavery but relates with the problematisation of collecting today. It is a commonplace in museums to think that anybody can collect. While in a sense of course that's true, it is possible to go out now and collect contemporary material culture, to pursue a structured and sustainable policy of collecting with limited resources is a challenge. We will have through the winter of 2007 a series of four workshops at the British Museum that will discuss subjects such as 'Collecting the ordinary'. These will focus particularly on issues such as - when do you collect large objects? Or when is photography or film the most appropriate way of recording information about large or ephemeral objects? We will also discuss questions of colleting in source communities. How do you actually collect bearing in mind what source countries and other societies might want or need in the way of collections - now and for the future? For example, if those countries and societies do not actually have the resources we have in Europe to make those collections - how should we respond? So, this is one of the outcomes which arose from considering the problems raised by the acquisition and display of objects related to the slave trade.

HW: What was the main message that the British museum had about 1807?

JK: The main message is to do with the importance of integrating a knowledge and understanding of the North Atlantic Slave Trade with broader cultural and historical societies in Ghana, Africa more generally, and in the UK and US.

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