Interview with Rita McLean

Rita McLean is the Head of Museums and Heritage Services at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). In this interview she discusses the partnership between the museum and the Equiano project and the wider implications of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. Rita McLean was interviewed on the 5 December 2007 by Geoff Cubit, they are identified as RM and GC respectively.

GC: I wonder if I might ask about the partnership agreement between Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Equiano Society with Arthur Torrington. What was attractive for the museum in getting involved in this?

RM: Well I think it was attractive for the museum on several counts. We have been trying to make sure we're taking a broader approach to our programme and to focus on creating more diverse interpretations of Birmingham's and indeed the UK's history. So the chance of working with the Equiano Society fitted into that agenda. I think it was also important for the museum to do some innovative and major activities that linked into the 2007 bicentenary programme and Equiano as a historical figure was ideal to work with.

GC: How has the partnership worked in practice?

RM: On both sides it was challenging but ultimately it has been worth it as we've achieved a great deal through the project. It was a different way of working for us as it's not us consulting somebody or its not us buying in specialist knowledge; it is sharing responsibility and trying to jointly follow a set of objectives and deliver something that we all feel we set out to deliver at the outset. To adjust to that on a practical level we had to adopt new ways of working, as we are a very large organisation, and it's difficult for us to work in a manner which doesn't take into account institutional procedures which might appear cumbersome and unwieldy from the outside.

GC: Is it something you would do again?

RM: We would definitely! We as an institution have learnt so much from being involved with the Equiano Society and delivering the Equiano Project outcomes. It's provided a great way to look at how we work as a museum. I think when you're in a large organisation you rarely get a chance to reflect on the ways you operate. As a museum we deliver, it's our business to deliver, we develop our exhibitions on a variety of levels and we deliver them to our audience. We're not used to working with a partner who might question how we do certain things and suggest other ways of working. This really came up with areas such as the marketing and publicity of the exhibition, as would normally we do those almost automatically. Whereas when you're in a partnership the partner is saying quite validly, 'why are you doing it like this' and 'why are you doing it like that'. It takes more time to work like that but if you're working in a partnership you do need to work in that way and not make assumptions.

GC: With this working relationship that you developed, will the processes be incorporated into future practice?

RM: By being involved in a partnership we of course noticed that it was complicated and time consuming as opposed to our normal way of working but its hugely beneficial as it engages you with a whole range of knowledge and experiences that sits outside the museum, which we would have otherwise never have had the chance to work with.

GC: Can I ask a bit about how you see this project fitting into the larger picture of the bicentenary?

RM: We did see it as part of the 2007 commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade but we also saw it as quite an individual project as well. I think Arthur and ourselves viewed the exhibition about Equiano first and foremost. We wanted to pursue a project about Equiano that told his whole life story and which contributed to a bigger picture of reinterpreting Britain's history and heritage. So it wasn't just another exhibition on abolitionism project. It was of course inextricably linked to that, but that wasn't the whole purpose of the project.

GC: Though as the exhibition takes place in 2007 rather than 5 or 10 years earlier, because it is the bicentenary, what do you think the exhibition contributes to that history?

RM: One of the key messages is that when people think of the abolitionists we wanted to show that it isn't just Wilberforce or Clarkson. The exhibition draws attention to the fact that there was Equiano working hard to bring about the end of the slave trade and slavery alongside other Black abolitionists who were all part of trying to bring an end to the slave trade. So it's important that this exhibition is adding to the variety of exhibitions that have examined the abolition.

GC: Can I ask how important the connections are between this exhibition and the city of Birmingham as well as more nationally?

RM: I think it was important to see this as an exhibition with a particular resonance for Birmingham. I think it was significant for us to address the fact that for Birmingham and for Britain it isn't just the port cities that were involved in the slave trade and abolition. Birmingham is very heavily involved because of the nature of its manufacturing industries. I think that's a story that isn't as visible as I feel it should be.

GC: Looking at the wider picture what do you think are the legacies of the 2007 bicentenary in museums?

RM: One of the things I'm conscious of is that with a number of museums looking to put on exhibitions and displays representing enslavement and abolition a lot of material has come to the surface that people hadn't realised the importance of previously. This could have been the result of extensive archive searches or reinterpretations of objects in collections. What you don't want is all of this to be forgotten after this year.

GC: And yet it's very difficult for example for museums to somehow then to integrate that research or those objects into some kind of permanent display?

RM: Yes, but that's what needs to happen. The majority of events have been temporary exhibitions, or they're websites, or they're installations and I think its how there is a legacy to that and you try and make sure that you don't lose that. We are thinking at the moment about how do we retain aspects of the Equiano exhibition and how do we feed that into permanent displays.

GC: What us your strategy for that?

RM: It could take many forms. We're deciding whether it's going to be an ongoing relationship with the Equiano Society, whether we change our history displays to incorporate the Equiano story, or how we use the research and knowledge from the Equiano exhibition in future exhibitions.

GC: One of the other issues that has been raised this year has been the relationship between museums and contemporary issues in society, particularly how much it is a museum's role to contribute to these debates.

RM: Well I think it's very valid for museums to engage in these processes. I'm quite supportive for that approach in making contemporary connections to issues. I think that's often a way of getting people interested in the past, both for children and adults. I think especially that a way you can make connections for younger people to events in the past is if you can relate it to some of the things that are real for them in the present. I think when you get that right it's quite a strong, powerful thing to do. I don't think you always have to do that. It obviously depends on the exhibition you're doing and I don't think you need to do that every single time. But there are occasions when it's a good way to get people interested and to get people to understand some of the historical points that are being made.

GC: Do you think that has been achieved with the bicentenary in 2007?

RM: I think with 2007 it's of huge importance and relevance to British society today and that's why we can't just let go of everything that has been achieved. I think a lot of the problems in society in terms of racism and discrimination stem from this episode in history and that needs to be addressed. That's still to be recognised on a wide scale and I think the issues and implications from that are not wholly understood.

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