Interview with Jane batty
Jane Batty is the Audience Development Officer for Hull Museums and worked extensively for the 2007 Wilberforce Project. In this interview Jane Batty discusses the role of community consultation and is interviewed by Helen Weinstein and Kalliopi Fouseki, identified respectively as JB, HW and KF.
KF: Jane, could you describe the role of community consultation in the redevelopment of the museum?
JB: When we started working on the redevelopment there were some general areas that we knew the public wanted to see covered in the new displays. So when we submitted the bid to the HLF we also began a visitor survey looking at what people found most interesting in the existing displays; what they'd like to see more of, what they thought didn't work so well. That feedback influenced such things as our display area looking at keywords, such as what slavery actually means and the history of slavery before the transatlantic slave trade. There was also a really big demand to look at the different communities in Hull, and the different ethnicities here in the city. This was also reflected in the desire expressed by many visitors to finish the exhibition on a positive note, looking at not only at the negative legacies of the slave trade but also how that's influenced cultures and encouraged diversity and brought people together. We also did a non-visitor survey which we tried to target people who had never been to the museum, so we used the council's customer panel for that. We used this database to target our typical non-visitors and find out what we could do to encourage them to visit the museum. The key findings from that were that a lot of people wanted more hands-on activities and opportunities to engage with the displays. Also mentioned was putting in more seating, so that people could feel free to take their time in the museum. We also set up our community consultation panel so we had meetings with local stakeholders, people who were keen to engage with the project. That was a regular process every three months or so where we discussed how the project was developing which again directly influenced how the displays took shape and developed. So throughout the process it was very important for us to involve the community and understand what their requirements were from the museum.
KF: Could you describe the whole consultation process in detail before the exhibition was put in place, during the exhibition and after?
JB: We did the two surveys that I've explained where we found out a lot about how to increase the understanding really. We set up the first consultation meeting, which was just a general open meeting, which we advertised in the local paper. We explained that we were hoping to redevelop the museum and we gave a general outline of the plans and why we wanted to do it. We invited people to come along to the meeting and to give their views on what they thought the shape of the project should be. We also wrote letters to specific community groups as well.
KF: Were they involved in the preparation of the text panels?
JB: Yes, certainly, the fist meeting was looking at the themes of the museum and what we were covering. That's where we found out things such as the particular desire to look at communities in Hull, to look at what 'Britishness' means and all the different things that can shape identity. We also noted a concern to display objects which belong to people in Hull. So for example in the section that looks at human rights, we've got objects from Hull Dockers who boycotted Ceylon teas because the tea workers had such low wages. We've got objects from the Hindu Culture Association, and lots of things from people from Hull about how objects represents their identities. As well as looking at the objects in the museum, the meetings got more detailed as time went on. So we had a meeting that looked at texts panels and how we dealt with sensitive issues such as the abuse of female slaves and the kind of language we used. We then had another meeting that looked at the use of images and how sensitive objects should be displayed. Such as should people be able to touch shackles or should they be behind a glass case. So the meetings were very helpful in shaping the nature and character of the exhibition.
KF: Did you have any difficulties or did you face any debates or tensions in these meetings?
JB: Yes but that was part of the process. One example where we had disagreement in the consultation group was that some people thought we should show images of some of the buildings in Britain that had been built on money from the slave trade. They wanted us to show for example, merchant's houses in Bristol, or Harewood House in Yorkshire, and illustrate the point that those buildings are still around today and shaping our environment. Another part of the group was against this and considered it was like saying that the slave trade was a horrific thing, but we've got these lovely building out of it. We were just honest about the challenges we faced as a curatorial team and the people at the consultation groups could see that. We couldn't always help everybody or do everything. In this instance over the photographs of the building, the group debated amongst themselves and decided that we should show those images.
HW: What difference did these consultations with communities make to the shape and even the detail of the exhibition?
JB: In terms of the themes there was a big influence. For example, we knew that we wanted to look at West African culture. To do this one of the initial ideas was that we would try and reconstruct a kind of environment or a typical dwelling of a West African family. This would perhaps contain everyday objects so people could understand what life was like for people. We would then introduce the fact that people were being taken and kidnapped into slavery. But at the consultation meetings people felt that this reconstruction was too stereotypical and there were so many different cultural groups all with their own different traditions and different ways of life that it wouldn't really be giving the true picture or celebrating the diversity of so many cultural traditions. So now the display looks at the diversity and how there are many different cultural groups.
HW: And then did you have any particular text label sessions where there community consultation altered how you were going to present objects and write texts?
JB: One of the things we got from the meetings was that we needed a two tier approach. As well as the labels people wanted bite-sized facts, so we developed the, 'Did You Know' on the panels. These had a key fact, or something that might be interesting to any visitor who doesn't want to read the whole panel. We consulted closely on the panels that looked at diversity in Hull and also life in West Africa particularly. With the first draft that we had of the text concerning Hull a number of people considered that it was too negative. This view was taken in light of a recent report that said that racist incidents in Hull were some of the highest in the country. The panel took this up as an issue that Hull had a lot of problems with racism and that this was something that would need to be tackled. They decided that the people of Hull should stand up and take action that there were all these cultural influences in Hull which brings great benefits to the city. The community groups felt however there was a lot to be positive about rather than hammering home this negative view, then wanted the museum to talk about all the cultures and how people were actually getting on in Hull. We had quotes from some of the cultural groups about how things have improved a lot in the years they have been living in Hull. We had examples from people like a lady who was a refugee here in the city. Someone helped her get on the bus and they offered to help her on with a pushchair and she said she was really touched because she hadn't expected anybody to help her. Just small quotes from people in the community showing the positive rather than the negative aspects of life in Hull saying that there are lots of people in the city, these are the influences we have around us, that contribution really changed that panel.