Interview with David Spence

David Spence is Director of the Museum in Docklands. In this interview he describes the consultative process undergone for the London, Sugar and Slavery exhibition and the benefits of this for the museum. Interviewing David Spence and Laurajane Smith and Helen Weinstein referred to as DS, LS and HW respectively.

HW: We've come today just to have you describe for us what preparations you’re making to mark 1807, to talk us through some of the issues for you. So could you tell us how the planning of this exhibit started when and how?

DS: Yes of course. What we’ve learnt on this journey is that it’s not about marking the bicentenary at all. We recognised two and a half years ago that the museum should put on an exhibition or event for 2007. The museum called Lola Young, Baroness Young, to assist us. We had a meeting with Baroness Young and the first step was to agree that she should contact a range of individuals who have a particular interest in this subject from the African-Caribbean community. This group met independent of the museum to consider what a museum’s appropriate response should be and then advise the museum of their views. So it was unmediated and un-facilitated with no representatives of the museum present. There were then subsequently three meetings with representatives of the museum, and they came up with a set of recommendations, which Lola produced into a report stating what the museum ought to be addressing. That was the starting point for it. From that group and through that process we formed a consultative group comprised of six core members. We then commissioned an independent curator to work directly with the museum and outside of the consultative group to be a part-time member of staff to work with the project, that person was Dr. Caroline Bressey. At that time we were also looking for funding. It was also semi-apparent at the time that the museum building itself had some connection with the trade but it wasn’t clear what that was. In the course of our work towards what we should be doing, it became abundantly clear that this actual physical space and geographical location is intimately connected with transatlantic slavery.

LS: What were the recommendations of the consultative group?

DS: The recommendation of both the earlier group and the consultative group was that we ought to produce a permanent display which reflected London's involvement in the slave trade. We then set about the process of getting funding. We first went to the Renaissance in the Regions and we got agreement of funding which at the time was about £150,000. With that we set out on our role, the big journey, to try and transform the museum. The emphasis through the consultative group was to be very ambitious in terms of what we wanted to achieve which was initially to tell the whole story of transatlantic slavery, London’s connection and its legacy for the UK. Also it was to address London’s relationship with modern day slavery. We knew that was something we couldn't do, it was too large a project, but we were not in the business of telling our consultative group, we were in the business of listening to our consultative group and responding to them. From the very beginning it was very clear that the authority rested with that group not with the museum. It was not going to the museum’s voice that was going to be heard, it was the consultative voice that was going to be heard and they would be named on the panel as the authors of the gallery.

HW: What was the process of applying for funding?

DS: We belatedly put in an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to be able to meet our aspirations. We therefore with about 12 months to go from our initial design timetable which was to be complete by October 2007 put in an application. Around about nine months or so to go we heard that we had been successful on a major grant, which we then set out to develop a new gallery with.

LS: It sounds like quite a detailed and committed consultation process that you’ve gone through, having gone through it, what do you think you’ve learned in terms of wider museum practices.

DS: I think that the most important thing that we have learnt is that if you say to a group of people we want your advice then simply you have to take it. I think honesty, being straightforward, setting the terms of reference, saying yes we do want to hear what you have to say, this is where we can go and this is where we can’t go, this is my limit to enable you to empower you. Being absolutely straight, that’s the main thing. Second thing is it underscores the fact that museum institutions are not organised in their structures, academic, curatorial structures, to be able to allow other narratives to be heard in the institution. Not necessarily through their own fault. As they have to work within the material, the collections that have been shaped and formed with agendas that hadn't taken any account of, for example, in this particular instance the African and Caribbean experience.

LS: Would you do it again?

DS: We're going to do it again! I've already said to the existing consultative group that there's no point in staying together in old times sake. We’ve got a three year programme of community events, we have a book which we intend to publish in 2008, we are intending to try and forward this site as a World Heritage site together with partners in Africa and the Caribbean. We're writing a memorandum of understanding with a museum in Barbados for curatorial exchanges, specifically because these are ways that address those issues about the voices within our own institution. Outside of that experience there is another story which hasn’t been told yet, because this museum was built for the Caribbean sugar trade in the nineteenth century, it was also talking sugar from Mauritius and then later it was taking trade from Bengal. The largest community on our doorstep is Bangladeshi. Also around 6% or 7% of the adult community is Chinese; there is a whole raft of stories which haven't yet been told.

LS: And will you engage in this sort of deep consultation given your experiences with this will you engage in the deep consultation like you've done with his one, with a different type of events a different story a different audience focus?

DS: Definitely there will be no point doing it any other way if we wanted the people who live round here to come to the museum and have any sense of veracity in the stories that they're hearing.

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