Interview with Jayne Tyler

Jayne Tyler is the Head of Professional Services for Culture at Hull City Council, and in this interview she talks about the processes of setting up the new exhibition at Wilberforce House Museum and the value of the museum both locally and nationally. Interviewing Jayne Tyler is Helen Weinstein, they are identified as JT and HW respectively.

HW: Can you sum up for me what is the whole story that you want to tell in the museum?

JT: Obviously the lynchpin is the Wilberforce connection, because its his birthplace and we wouldn't have gone down that route of exploring transatlantic slavery if it wasn't for Wilberforce. It's about putting him in context with the wider history and not showing him as the one person who was the sole abolitionist. We wanted to show him as the Parliamentary abolitionist who was the voice-piece in parliament but to highlight all the other people who were involved like Clarkson and Equiano. We're looking at the wider history of transatlantic slavery, how it developed, the economic elements, the political elements. One of the most interesting pieces of feedback we've had was actually from one of the descendants of Wilberforce who told us that they were glad that we didn't make it a shrine to Wilberforce. They were really pleased because they understood Wilberforce was a part of a much bigger picture and they felt he would have been very proud of the museum we developed. He wasn't someone who wanted to take all the glory.

HW: Could you tell me about how you got involved?

JT: I was curator at Wilberforce House Museum for 13 years before I took up my current position and so I'd lived with the displays in Wilberforce House that had been created in the 1980s. So as a curator I was very aware of the public criticism of the displays that we had. We'd had various letters sent to us over the years, particularly over the reconstruction of the slave ship, people felt uncomfortable with it, they felt it portrayed a very negative view of African people in the museum. In its place they wanted to see more positive role models of Africans in the museum. It was also suggested that they wanted to see more of the material culture of West Africa before transatlantic slavery, better terminology and better language used in the panels and they wanted a lot more personal narratives and histories of the enslaved peoples themselves. It was also felt that the building itself was very confused, that it was a mixture of the history of Wilberforce, wider social history and the decorative arts.

HW: What did you do with this feedback?

JT: Based on all of these ideas we did a few early discussion sessions with our front of house staff and the staff within the museum service. This was in 1999 before we even got fully engaged with the project. We just got people's ideas about how they'd like to see the museum moving forward. These were that the building could be better orientated, the subject of enslavement to be dealt with more sensitively and the Wilberforce collection separate from the social history and decorative arts collections. So the basis of this new development is that we've separated and concentrated all our efforts in Wilberforce House on the transatlantic slave trade. We're opening a new development in the future next door in the Georgian Houses which will be concentrating on the decorative arts, crafts and design parts. We've separated that out for the public to make it less confusing so that we could focus more attention and time on the history of transatlantic slavery and Wilberforce's role.

HW: And how did this process develop?

JT: So we consulted internally in 1999 with our curatorial team here in Hull, but we also spoke to people in the Yorkshire and Humberside Museums Council. We had visits from a number of representatives from museums and we also worked with a curator who had worked with English Heritage down in London and who had some experience of ethnographic collections. They came and did study visits and gave us some feedback on the displays. It wasn't until 2002 that we became fully engaged in developing the project. We began consulting with an international advisory group of curators and academics who were experts in gender or ethnicity. That was really useful link for us, we worked with individuals and museums in Barbados and Benin. The curator at the National Museum in Freetown, Sierra Leone, came over on a placement for two months and they helped by doing a critique of the galleries. We also worked with professors in Canada and the United Kingdom. This also gave us an opportunity to call on people if we had an issue in the later development of the museum. For instance if we wanted to resolve an issue regarding gender and slavery we could then go to a specialist who knew more about that particular area. We also worked closely with local community groups to gather their responses to the development.

HW: How did the bid process work for you?

JT: Well our feasibility study was in 2002, and we were actually working with English Heritage for a few years to assess the building in terms of providing greater physical access. The designated international slavery collections in the museum were only accessible by the stairs and an important part of our refit was to make the building accessible for all. The actual bidding process started in 2004 when we made an initial bid to the Department of Culture Media and Sport for access funding. We then started to put bids together for the European Regional Development Programme and also for the Heritage Lottery Fund.

HW: And how did the process of the bid effect the way that you worked in Hull?

JT: I think in Hull we suffer because we probably don't have the massive budgets that some of the museums do nationally. We don't always have the capital up front because we're a local authority museum. So often we have to begin work with our own Architects Department or Design Department, they would be really helpful and work on the project in advance of funding but they were always working at risk if the funding doesn't come through. That restricts you in one way but you're also working with people who know your service really well, so it has positive and negative aspects to it.

HW: And did the bid alter the way you worked with local groups and community groups?

JT: No, because it's something we would naturally do anyway. We're all trained social historians, who have been working in the fields of social history and oral history for 20 years so it's natural for us to do that. It would be odd for us to develop a project where we didn't consult or didn't involve people, or people weren't able to directly look at the design.

HW: So what kind of discussions did you have with your museum practitioners about to what extent this is going to be about the people of Hull and to what extent is it going to be about a national experience?

JT: I think the museum is unique. It's local but it also has national and international resonances. Whilst we would tell the story of the house and thereby the history of the city, but we also tell the story of Wilberforce. This is key because we had a lot of connections with other work that was going on in different countries. It was really important to widen that out. At the same time however every gallery and in every area of the museum, local people can either find some connection to themselves or their lives so it still had relevance to them.

HW: So you've got to the end of this experience now, it started in 1999 with discussions about reconstructions to 2005 when you started going for this big bid with European funding and the Heritage Lottery Fund, how do you feel about it now? What have been the successes and the further challenges?

JT: The interesting challenge for us is that we've made massive increases in the number of young people visiting the museum. That's brilliant and that's what we wanted. We have received criticism from some older people, the over 55s, who have disliked the removal of the period rooms. We've been addressing that by explaining to these visitors that the period rooms weren't original. They were never Wilberforce's possessions and in fact were an amalgamation of several different periods. They were just theatre sets really. We are making it clear though that we're putting some of the social history and decorative arts on display in the Georgian Houses next door. So we're working through that, and some of the people who have criticised us earlier when we opened are now coming back, recognising the changes we've made and seeing that the museum has a lot of value locally and nationally.

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