Interview with Tony Tibbles

Anthony Tibbles is the Director of the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Through his involvement with the museum over the last decade he has taken a prominent role in the wider museum representation of transatlantic enslavement. This interview took place on the 30 May 2007 at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool. The previous exhibition for which Tony Tibbles was project leader, The Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, was about to be dismantled in preparation for the new International Slavery Museum, which was opened in August 2007. Present at the interview were Anthony Tibbles, Laurajane Smith, Geoff Cubitt and Helen Weinstein, identified in the interview as AT, LS, GC and HW respectively.

GC: Tony, we're talking at a transitional kind of moment just when the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery in the museum is being dismantled. I'd like to ask firstly what do you think the gallery has achieved since 1994?

AT: That's a nice big question to start with isn't it? I think it's achieved quite a lot. I think principally its put the subject of the transatlantic slave trade on the museum map. Although there was the small display at Wilberforce House, the number of visitors that that got is really quite small, and I don't think it really got very much attention, whereas this project did get an awful lot of attention from the very first moment when we said we were going to do something. I think it's had a number of effects; in terms of Liverpool it's acted as an acknowledgment or recognition of Liverpool's role in the slave trade. For people in the black community that was something really important. The fact that we got the Lord Mayor to attend a service at the cathedral when we opened the gallery was the first time a representative of Liverpool engaged in that sort of official acknowledgement. I think that has helped Liverpool to come to terms with recognising its role in the slave trade and we also developed the International Slavery Day that the city council has come onboard with. The city council's apology for Liverpool's role in the slave trade, which I'm sure you know about, the gallery also set that ball rolling. I'm not saying that wouldn't have happened at some point, it might have done. But I think the gallery had an important effect in starting that. And I think for a lot of black people in Liverpool that was something which was important, the fact that we've carried through with it is again very important. I think the community have been used to a lot of initiatives that have come in, done something, and then moved on to whatever the next high profile activity was. Although what we've been doing has not necessarily been high profile, instead we've been building over the last 12 or 13 years. I think the gallery has been important in making the slave trade widely known in Liverpool and in Britain generally.

GC: Do you think there is more interest and acknowledgement of Britain's role in the slave trade now than there was a decade ago?

AT: This has been something which has built up over a number of years, there's been a lot of media interest when we first opened and it has continually really. There have been a series of things which have happened since then which has raised the profile of this subject in the public eye. I think the other thing was that it showed that museums could deal with emotive topics that were controversial. Obviously other museums have dealt with that, and one immediately thinks of the things like the Holocaust, but this is something that is very pertinent to British history, British experience. The Holocaust, terrible though it was, is I don't think is embedded as much as the subject of the slave trade. I think it's been interesting to see that level of response that there's been to all the issues surrounding slavery and the slave trade. I got the National Trust magazine yesterday and on the 'Letters Page', which has a response to an earlier edition of the magazine, it says that they've never had a response to an article to the same extent for the one that dealt with the slave trade, and I think that says a lot. It's very typical of our experience of dealing with that subject and we've seen it in terms of the response to Tony Blair's statement of regret. It's an issue that is actually polarising in how people deal with it. I think the gallery has given people confidence to deal with subjects like that and other people have followed in our wake. I'm confident that the National Maritime Museum began to take an interest in the slavery story because of the response of the public to what we've done. They realised they needed to pick up on that. I think it's had those sorts of effects.

GC: Has having this gallery made a significant difference to the kinds of people coming to the museum?

AT: What it did do, and I think this has been sustained; it has increased slightly the black and ethnic minority audience. I think some of the other things we're doing related to the gallery have contributed to this and I think the profile is changing a bit at the moment. But I don't think it's had a major effect. That would be my feeling and I think the research we've done would bear that out.

GC: Are the things that the gallery has achieved more or less what you expected it to achieve when it was launched?

AT: That's an interesting question. I suppose there are things I hoped it might achieve. I think there was a sense of not knowing how the public would respond to it. I think there was quite a lot of concern from our point of view as to whether we'd actually got the balance right, in terms of the stories we were telling, in terms of the ways we were telling those stories. Until we started getting visitors, there was always that level of uncertainty, because the genesis of the gallery was one that was quite controversial much more controversial than the International Slavery Museum has been.

HW: Could you tell us a bit about that before we go on?

AT: Yes, it very much related to the black community and their response as to what we were doing. That was inevitably one of concern, one of a feeling that here is another white organisation that was going to come in and really do a white-wash job on this subject area. I think there was a lot of concern both locally and more widely as to how we were going to approach it. The questions people asked immediately were not actually related to the subject area so much. They were related to us as an organisation saying, 'how many people from the ethnic minorities have you got on your staff?', 'what's your equal opportunities policy?', 'who is going to be advising?', 'who are you going to involve?', 'who are you going to be talking to?' It was looking at the mechanics rather than the subject that we're going to be dealing with. Because of the way the gallery came about through the involvement of the Peter Moores Foundation, I don't think we made the best launch of the gallery that we might have done. The Foundation had a feeling that somehow they'd come up with an idea that somebody else might come along and pinch, so we managed to keep it all quiet. I think it was very much a non-museum type approach. We would have preferred to have been much more open initially about what we were doing before the full public launch. People in the community found out about it beforehand so they turned up here with banners furled up ready to protest against what we were doing, mainly because they didn't know what we were doing. They had just a vague sense that we were going to do something about the slave trade.

HW: And how did you respond to that?

AT: There was an intense period of trying to establish some sort of relationship with people in the community. Although we'd done one exhibition about Liverpool and its black presence in 1989, we hadn't got a track record of dealing with people in the black community. Now we have community partners, and they've been doing stuff with us for years, so its second nature in a way to us. We'd always operated previously by talking to one or two people about the exhibition, but when you did an exhibition, you'd go on and do it, you didn't go and consult with people and talk about what you were going to do. In a sense that was a learning situation for us. So there was a period of trying to find one's feet on both sides, from the museum point of view and the communities. I think that took a long time. Initially, we were going to appoint one guest curator to advise us, we soon realised however that it wasn't going to be a practical way forward. It was such a big topic you really need to get a lot of people involved. We then appointed five people as guest curators. But then we had complaints that, 'there aren't enough black people', 'there aren't enough women', 'you haven't got enough people from the African-centric perspective.' We'd be asked, 'how do you appoint people?' There are still people who are suspicious of what we do and what we want to do. It was a very difficult, very challenging, quite stressful experience in those early days.

GC: Could you say something about the ways in which you think the new International Slavery Museum will do something the old gallery didn't do?

AT: I hope what it's going to do is build on what we've done already. The knowledge and experience we've gained will make us better at interpreting the subject and we're now able to make more use of modern technologies than we did in the original gallery. That we know the sort of things that are important to people, are of interest to them, means I hope we're going to be concentrating on those. I think we're going to be contextualising the story better than we did originally. In the original gallery you arrive and are immediately thrown into the subject of the transatlantic slave trade. Whereas we're proposing in the new museum that you look at the wider context of issues of freedom and enslavement, that you look at contextualising Africa, before you start looking at the mechanics of the slave trade. I think the other thing is that we're also going to be looking very specifically at the legacy of the slave trade and the consequence of slavery. This is an area which we weren't able to deal with previously, partly due to considerations of space and partly because our focus was on the historic story. This is what museums are used to doing. We weren't sure about how people would respond to this, so in a sense we were sticking to tried and tested ground by focusing on the historical. People are always saying, 'all I want is the facts', 'all I want is the truth', we all know there are different truths and different facts for different people. But we are exploring those areas that really chime with contemporary society, looking at those issues of global inequality, of racism, discrimination, but also looking at issues of identity, looking at cultural transformation.

GC: Do you think there are now differences in the way you can discuss the subject?

AT: I can remember that during the discussions which were taking place about the original gallery at least two of our advisors said we can't possibly deal with reparations: that was off the agenda. Whereas now our attitude is, reparations is a legitimate debate, it's legitimate for us to raise it. It's partly because society has moved on in the last 10 or 15 years. Things which could be difficult for us to discuss in 1994 are probably much easier to talk about in 2007. It's also a sense that we've felt more comfortable in expanding into these areas, there's also a demand for this. We do a lot of work with things like Citizenship in the National Curriculum, so we're now looking for things which link into that. It's also connecting in to the work we've done for International Slavery Remembrance Day. Dealing with those issues and having to recognise that there will be people who will dispute it. There is a link between the slave trade, slavery and something like the Stephen Lawrence and the Anthony Walker murders. That's very much now part of our agenda to be trying to make those links. These were things that we weren't even attempting back in 1994, and wouldn't have attempted I don't think. These are the way we're changing and moving forward.

GC: In what ways do you think slavery should be represented, either in your own museum or others that have been involved between 1994 and 2007? I mean you've talked a bit about contextualisation and about the bringing out of the contemporary implications of legacies, are there other ways in which people nowadays people go about these things?

AT: I think it is very much in terms of breadth and taking in a wider perspective. Certainly in 1994 we were very much dealing with the historical side, and that's what museums have traditionally been used to doing, but increasingly they are prepared to widen those borders.

HW: Could you give us a couple of examples?

AT: I think in terms of the Middle Passage, the existing gallery provides you with a reconstruction of a slave hold interior, which gives you the physical space. Then there are a couple of voice-overs, one Equiano and one John Newton, and we're leaving it to people's imaginations. I think the audio-visual experience that is in the process of being developed at the moment is going to be perhaps more effective for more people and probably more direct than that display was.

HW: Why is it more direct?

AT: I think whereas previously we were leaving it to people's imagination, we're probably giving them more information more ammunition if you like, we're going to give them more of a sensory experience, both in terms of representing visually and through sound. I haven't yet seen what they're proposing so it's a little bit difficult to be precise in terms of what they're delivering. I think we're making more use of original accounts, individual witnesses, using original sources more in terms of delivering content. For example, there's a big model of a plantation and an opportunity of interrogating that, and to listening to a lot of original voices talking about the experiences of slavery. That will be again, more direct for people because people do like that human interaction, that human element, we like to identify with the individual. Although there is some of that in the original gallery we're relying a lot on generalised information whereas it will probably come across more directly in the new museum.

LS: What's occurred either in the museum or more broadly, socially, that has facilitated the prospect of a more direct approach?

AT: I think confidence in ourselves in dealing with the subject matter. I think it's also the fact that for museums it is more acceptable to deal with socially contentious issues than it was fifteen years ago. I think there's a great expectation that people can come to places like museums and be challenged. There are things like the Holocaust museums, there are things like the Museum of Justice in Nottingham, where people are dealing with subjects that are not traditional subjects in museums. I think there's a greater acceptance amongst people that they can come into this environment and find it a more challenging location.

LS: And what's driving that confidence?

AT: I think it's visitor response and changes in society as well. Also, one may criticise the Government for all sorts of things, but the fact is that there is a Government that is prepared to at least to make some sort of apology for the slave trade, that significant government funding has gone into the bicentenary year, that they've supported us, and that the agenda that they are setting is in an accordance with ours. The sorts of things we're doing are the sorts of things they want us to be doing. They are supportive of us raising these sorts of issues. In a sense you're now expecting museums to address these sorts of issues, where I think 15 years ago there was a slight raising of eyebrows that museums are getting involved in this area and perhaps they should steer clear of that. I think there are a number of things which are happening that are making it an easier environment in which to work. There is a lot of support from Government and others, a lot of people saying, 'these are important issues', 'these are things that a museum should be addressing', and they are prepared to support us financially.

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