Interview with Chris Spring

Chris Spring from the British Museum is the curator of the Africa Gallery, specialising in contemporary African art. In this interview he explains the importance of the artwork La Bouche du Roi for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. He also discusses the importance of the effects of this year within the museum, the connections that have been built and the positive legacies that might emerge. Conducting the interview with Chris Spring are Geoff Cubitt and Helen Weinstein identified as HW, GC and CS respectively.

HW: So could you tell me about the choice of the Romuald Hazoumé piece La Bouche du Roi? Could you describe the piece and its significance this year?

CS: All the objects in the museum have many stories and very often I think as curators we may be guilty of perhaps only telling one of those stories. I just knew that La Bouche du Roi was different. Partly because it is such a very striking work and obviously it uses the print of The Brookes, which there is a great strength of feeling against. The fact that Hazoumé was reinterpreting it in such a radical kind of way was great I think. I knew it would be good here at the museum, rather than Tate Modern for example, because it would have an impact on so many other objects, not just the Africa gallery but all over the museum. I think for example people looked again at the Enlightenment Gallery, and queried the fact that the period of enlightenment in Europe happened to correspond with the height of the Atlantic slave trade. One person's enlightenment was another's enslavement.

HW: And for you, why, when you saw La Bouche why did you think that this is the work that can mark 1807?

CS: Because I knew it was a new take on an old idea, an old image, or an old tradition. I knew about the print of The Brookes. I'd heard how people reacted to it, not always in a positive kind of way. This version of that print of The Brookes seemed to me just to get to the nub I suppose of what we perhaps should be thinking about in the bicentenary of 2007. That slavery is not something that's gone away, it's something that we're continually having to be aware of and fighting. This was also very much the message that was coming across from the community groups that enslavement was here today and not just enslavement physically but mentally.

GC: Could you tell me a little more about consulting with external community groups for setting up La Bouche?

CS: I'd been going to a series of meetings before I came up with the idea of Hazoumé and La Bouche du Roi for the bicentenary. These meetings were with the Anti-Slavery International Heritage Network, Africa Beyond and the Cross-Community Forum organised by Rendezvous of Victory. I think if I had not been going to those meetings I might still have suggested that this would be a good idea, but having been to them I think it struck a powerful chord with me as something that community groups would respond to in a positive way.

GC: And what were the dialogues that you participated in these three forums that made you think in new ways about The Brookes print?

CS: It was just my knowledge of abolition really. I knew of Wilberforce and Clarkson and maybe one or two others and thought about it in those terms. When I went to the Cross-Community Forum and saw another list of individuals, headed by Toussaint L'Ouverture, I understood the great source of pride in rebellion. The community groups also drew attention to this, to counter the ongoing psychological damage of the slave trade by promoting positive images of African resistance to enslavement. I knew this was precisely what La Bouche would give to the objects of the British Museum, to get them to tell those other stories.

GC: Do you think there's a kind of tension between for instance Hazoumé's intentions with this artwork and the marking of the bicentenary.

CS: Of course the piece was conceived long before the bicentenary, I think in 1999 Hazoumé started work on it. But La Bouche du Roi is something which will go on long after 2007. The idea is to keep it sailing, to keep it moving, so it's sailed through the bicentenary and maybe a spotlight appeared on it during its voyage this year. It represents ideas and passions that must be kept alive and kept moving and my aim is to keep it touring.

HW: What have you learnt both professionally and personally in being involved in the marking of 1807?

CS: I've learnt a little bit about what the true, ongoing significance of this horrendous period in history is, what it means to people, how it can damage people and how it is an ongoing malaise. But also how to combat it and ways in which one can fight against it. The extremely important thing as far as the museum is concerned, is that we've learned about how the public have reacted and how we as curators can learn, not just about the objects in our care, but also about how our public perceives them. How important it is to tell as many stories as one possibly can about objects and not to confine it to maybe one story that we either know or are happy with or are comfortable with. We must be prepared to tell uncomfortable stories, because in the end they must be told.

GC: What else do you think the museum has benefited from this year?

CS: New friendships, new understandings between ourselves and other museums, but also other organisations. Importantly new understandings with other groups, for whom we might have represented, if not the enemy, then people who didn't understand the issues. These kinds of things I think provide great optimism for the future, and it is essential to make the museum a facility that is available to all people, and a forum for all people to come and discuss, come and not be afraid of the stone lions or the spiked railings or classical pillars and all those other things. It is really reaffirming the slogan of Rendezvous of Victory this year, 'Reparation through Education.' I think these are important things. I think as curators it's essential to realise that we have a certain amount of knowledge, but there are lots of other people who have other kinds of knowledge that can really bring works to life. I think that's been one of the big lessons. Somebody was saying to me, I think it was one of the dancers we had in the African gallery for Resistance and Remembrance Day, they said suddenly for them all the objects lit up. It was very moving I think. That has all been I think the positive effects, and we have to try to continue those relationships that have been established during this year, and to just make sure that they keep on expanding I think.

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