Interview with Tom Wareham

Dr. Tom Wareham is the Curator of Community and Maritime History in Docklands. In this interview he talks about the origins of the 'London, Sugar and Slavery Exhibition' and the process of working with external advisors. Tom Wareham was interviewed by Geoff Cubitt and they are identified in this edited transcript as TW and GC respectively.

GC: Where did the idea for having an exhibition as specific as Sugar, London and Slavery come from?

TW: I think you have to go back a few years to understand the background to the museum in Docklands generally. The museum as an idea was conceived in the 1980s at a time when the big issue in the East End of London was the closure of the docks which were the major employer in the area. The closure brought huge financial disruption and disadvantage to the East End of London. At that time as a reaction to this decline staff at the Museum of London began collecting material with the view to recording the history of the port and the docks. Over a 20 year period the whole concept of this museum evolved from that basis. Whilst originally the museum was conceived of as an industrial museum we began to realise that the story was not one of the decline of the docks but it was actually about the people in the area and how they had related to the port and the river. In 2004 we realised that the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade was coming up and that triggered a thought process as to how we could relate the story of the transatlantic slave trade to the museum building. The building that we're in was actually built by the London Committee of West Indian Merchants and Planters to take the produce of the slave plantations. The building itself had this significant story and we hadn't yet drawn enough attention to that aspect in the museum. So we thought that the first thing that we should do as a museum is to adjust that element of the story.

GC: Can you tell me what organisationally what happened next?

TW: It was decided that we should initiate a fairly high level academic consultative process. We brought in Professor Lola Young to actually advise the museum on how to go about this process. From this report we then began to draw up the consultative group that would help us with the exhibition.

GC: And was this consultative group composed of a sort of mixture community representatives and outside experts?

TW: Yes. What we wanted to do was to have a range of people from the African and Caribbean communities; community activists, academics and just ordinary members of the community. We also wanted people with specialist interests so we started discussing with Colin Prescod from the Institute of Race Relations. We were also able to have Catherine Hall, Hakim Adi and Caroline Bressey working on the team.

GC: So how did the consultative group actually assist?

TW: From our point of view the consultative group is really the core of the whole project. We knew from the outset as a museum that we had a couple of big problems in the way we could put on an exhibition that discussed the transatlantic slave trade. The first one is that we had virtually no slavery collection at all. The second thing was the representation of African and Caribbean perspectives within the museum structure. So in a sense there were a number of issues that we needed guidance on, getting enough people's help to influence the way we moved, to advise us and to provide balance, and to actually help us assemble a collection around which to build the story of the gallery we were going to tell. So we knew very quickly that the consultative group was going to be very important.

GC: Were you consciously setting things up in a very different way than you had done previously?

TW: Absolutely. Because the story as we saw it, the story that we're telling, is a story about people, we needed to be able to put people in the centre of it. The consultative group helped us and guided us towards that aim. Indeed, because we didn't have a big collection the normal procedure of putting on an exhibition couldn't be followed. Basically in a traditional way of putting on an exhibition if you want to do a new gallery you look at the objects you've got and then those objects direct the story that you're going to tell. Because we didn't have a collection we were able to approach the story with a fairly free hand and to enable the consultative group to in a sense direct where we went.

GC: How did the group actually work, what were the decision-making processes?

TW: The way the process basically worked was that I at first drew up a skeleton of what the gallery might contain and the basic story that it could tell. There were various elements that I thought needed to be there; the story of this building, the story of this dock, London's history as a shipping port, some of the fairly basic things really. We then put that to the consultative group to get their take on it, to see whether they thought that it matched their expectations. They came back with some quite interesting things, they said that they wanted more people in the story, that we could talk a lot about trade, commerce and ships but what was needed was people in the story. They want triangulation; that is references all the way through to the Caribbean, London and West Africa. So in a sense as the process evolved, they were partly a sounding board but also partly directing the content of the museum gallery itself. That in-fact became very specific when we were asking them what images we could use for the exhibition. That became important when it came to the whole issue of how you represent brutality especially. It followed a process whereby I would draft something, take it to them and then listen very carefully to what they had to say. I knew that I couldn't talk about the inherited experiences of people from the Caribbean or West Africa or racism in London in the modern day. I can talk about that from a white middle-class perspective, I can't talk about that from a black perspective. So therefore it was incredibly important that I didn't sit on my high chair as a curator and think that I knew it all and that I didn't have to listen. It was essential that I listened and used their advice. It was a very difficult process but I think it worked.

GC: Could you give me a few more examples perhaps where it was a difficult process, where the consultative group had a kind of transformative impact on what you ended up doing?

TW: Well the biggest one was really over the tone and content of the gallery text. The consultative group met every month for nearly a year. We produced schedules for each of these meeting which were sent out to them and which included proposed text and images for the gallery. This had gone on so that we were approaching making a decision on the final version of the text. We had a meeting in October which was a month before the gallery was due to open and about two weeks before the complete sign-off for all the text which had to go to the designers for printing. At this meeting we presented the text, and even though a lot of the text had been seen and read by the consultative group before, it was clear people weren't happy with it. This suddenly hauled us up and made us think, 'what have we done, what have we done wrong'. What it came down to, basically, was the tone of the text; it was thought it lacked a certain amount of punch. It didn't really give the view that the consultative group could sign up to. So the only way forward, as we had 2 weeks to go, was for myself and one of the Group to work solidly on the text and rewrite the entire thing. We went through it word by word, writing and rewriting every sentence. We would then look it over and discuss it and he would explain why changes should be made to certain sections. It was a difficult process but we ended up with what amounted to the final version you can see in the exhibition.

GC: When you mentioned the tone being wrong, can you say a bit more about what that meant in practice?

TW: I suspect that we were trying originally to maintain some sort neutral position, which isn't to say we weren't forthright in the original draft, because we pretty much nailed our colours to the mast. But the consultative group just wanted us to say, 'this is this' and not try to pussyfoot around quite simply. From their point of view there was far more politics in this story and they felt we should be making those politics clear. I think as museum curators - though we had agreed with that - we had felt that professionally in some way we had to try and step back. But what you have to realise is that in writing a gallery text you have to reduce everything down to 150 words a panel. You can only make a series of statements, you have to get straight to the point and that's what the consultative group wanted to see.

GC: With this alteration in the text what types of things are you hoping to get the people who come to this gallery to think about?

TW: There are a number of fairly traditional key messages that we wanted people to think about. These are not in any particular order, but one is the fact that London was a major slave trading port. Up until 10 years ago nobody really was aware of that, it was a hidden piece of history. The second thing is that this building is actually part of the slave trade. It's probably the biggest surviving structure in Britain relating to the triangle trade; that was another point we had to make. The next point really was to do with London and its history and I think in a sense this is a message that evolved because of the way we started to tell the story which was that London's history is misunderstood. It's misunderstood because we don't know about part of it, and that is about the African presence in London. We have a mental map of London's history but it's wrong and it's not complete. That was something that we really wanted to bring out. We wanted people to think about or realise that the world we're living in today and particularly London has been largely formed by what was happening two or three hundred years ago. We're still dealing with the unresolved issues caused from that period in history and it affects us all in our day-to-day lives. Those are the key messages that we were trying to get across in this exhibition.

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