Interview with Anne Lineen

Anne Lineen is the Exhibition Project Manager at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. Anne organised the recent exhibition, 'Breaking the Chains' which marked the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition Act. Anne describes the exhibition and its objectives. The interview was conducted on 23 July 2007 at the BCEM between Anne Lineen and Helen Weinstein identified as AL and HW respectively.

HW: So first of all I'd like to ask to describe what is the exhibition 'Breaking the Chains' about?

AL: Well, first of all it's about the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. We were very clear from the start that we wanted to explain what happened, we wanted people to understand the triangular trade, what it involved, and Britain's role in it. We wanted to get the basic facts across. But then because this is a history with a big emotional impact and lots of controversy we had to decide upon our approach and what our focus was going to be. We felt that because the slave trade was so dehumanising, when we look at history it's possible to fall into the same trap if we talk in the same de-humanising way. So if we're just talking about the facts, figures and the statistics you can forget you're talking about human beings. We wanted to put the humanity back into this history. The other thing we're trying to do is to constantly remind visitors that these are human beings we're talking about. This is what can happen when a group of people is turned into 'an other', it becomes okay to treat them differently than you treat yourself. So we felt it was very much part of the exhibition to put the humanity into the subject. I suppose that was a key underlying approach. It was explaining the history and then putting the humanity into it.

HW: Could you tell me about the problems of putting on this exhibition in Bristol?

AL: There was a lot going on and we thought right well, we have to put a marker down; we've got to say what we're doing. We said very clearly, very early on, we're doing an exhibition about the abolition of the slave trade and we are going to apply to the HLF, and we're going to be fundraising as well. We had a public meeting and various people came and expressed their views. It was only very, very late in the day that the first HLF application was rejected. So very late in the day we went into partnership with the city council and it was done as a partnership project. We were concerned about that because the Consortium of Black Groups in Bristol had said they weren't having anything to do with the council. But I think for me personally and for the museum, we felt that it's part of our mission that people understand Britain's colonial past, and the slave trade is an important part of that. We couldn't just say we weren't going to do it. We had to deal with the issues.

HW: For you, what for you were the aims and objectives of the 'Breaking the Chains' exhibition.

AL: First of all, I want people to respect history, that's number one, if they go away with nothing else, as long as they think, 'this is important', that is number one. I don't actually think that they even necessarily need to apply it to the present day, and say 'oh these are the legacies.' I think something as momentous as this, is momentous in its own right, it is important regardless of anything else. And then secondly I suppose I wanted people to realise that human beings have this capacity to do a great deal of evil but also to do a great deal of good as well; people can be very brave and have great resources and endurance. On the one hand we're saying, look this really awful thing happened, but on the other hand we're saying, this is how it's overcome. We don't just want people to feel really guilty, or really angry, or really helpless, we also want them to think, 'yes thank goodness there is this agency within human beings that enables them to overcome this'. When you get to contemporary slavery, it's very easy to think, 'oh my goodness this is still happening.' I think looking at contemporary slavery is really, really difficult, so that's why we also focused on the people who are still campaigning; the grassroots activists, the campaigners in Britain, people actually on the ground in these regions. We had to be quite careful, because you can't sound too hectoring, and you can't sound like you're giving a moral lecture, saying this is how you should behave, this is how you should think. To develop this in the final gallery, which deals with contemporary slavery, we were assisted by David Oulds, former director of Anti-Slavery International.

HW: Did you see this as a chance to put a marker down for the museum?

AL: Well we see ourselves as a national museum so we felt that we had to do something major, we also pride ourselves as a very dynamic slightly unorthodox organisation and underneath it all we are quite bullish as well. We felt that being an independent museum, though there are financial limitations, the other freedoms you have are fantastic. You've got incredible freedom, you can respond to anything, which is great. So we did feel that gives us kind of an edge which enables us to achieve things very quickly. We're also quite an informal, open museum as well. We had our apology debate in 2006, which was a very important marker we put down which said, 'we're not afraid to engage in this history'. We think it's our role because, I suppose of the name of the museum, gives the impression that we're a right wing, jingoistic, celebration of empire. So we're very keen to demonstrate that we provide a forum to tackle these issues that aren't actually being tackled anywhere else. We're trying all the time to give out the public face of 'engage with us, engage with us', we're not stuffy, pompous, we're open and we want to be seen as open and I think it's beginning to work. People do come in and respond to us. I remember a couple came in from a Black group from Bristol and they came to the front desk and they wanted to ask about how we were engaging with the other Black groups in Bristol, so I went down and we had a good old chat. You have to be honest, you can't think, 'oh god what's the official response', you have to be honest and say we're trying our best and ask people, 'what do you think?' You just have to be really very human and genuine. I think sometimes that if you're part of the civil service, or local government, I think possibly you have to be quite careful and think of, 'is there an official line'. But we don't have that to worry about so much, so we're very keen to be seen as forward looking and prepared to tackle things.

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