9 January 2013

Who Cares? Edinburgh Missionary Heritage Workshop

By Julie Adams
Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology

On 26th and 27th November 2012, a number of people interested in the material heritage of British missions in Africa and the Pacific, gathered in Edinburgh for a two-day workshop. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and organized by Chris Wingfield, Karen Jacobs and Chantal Knowles, the workshop was called provocatively called ‘Who Cares?’ –a title that captures the ambivalent relationship many now have with Britain’s history of missionary endeavours overseas during the colonial period.

The workshop, hosted by the Department of World Cultures at National Museums Scotland, was attended by a broad range of participants, most of whom work in a museum or university setting. We began by introducing ourselves and our work, which was time well spent as it served to highlight the connections in our lines of research as well as areas of mutual interest. In summarizing, Chantal Knowles noted that the word that came up most often during these presentations was ‘dispersal’: the material consequences of missionary travels can be found far and wide. For example, missionaries returning home to the UK after years away often tried to raise funds for their retirements by selling objects to museums so that many collections are now spread across a number of institutions. This dispersal has profound consequences for researchers working on missionary collections and is something that will no doubt be further discussed in the upcoming workshops in 2013.

Our event in Edinburgh focused on the African context and was timed to coincide with the opening of a major exhibition at NMS to mark the bicentenary in 2013 of the birth of the most famous missionary of them all, David Livingstone. Curated by Sarah Worden, this excellent exhibition showcases Livingstone’s career and his legacy. His apocryphal encounter with Henry Morton Stanley, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is represented in the exhibition by the two hats worn by the men, displayed together in a single case.  They brought to mind the material presence of the past as well as its passing, and served as a heady reminder of the ways in which the approaches and attitudes of yesterday remain today in our seemingly different world. 

That afternoon Friday Mufuzi, of the Livingstone Museum in Zambia presented a keynote address about the collections housed in his institution and the practical challenges it faces. I found it fascinating to hear of Livingstone’s continued heroic status in Zambia, a fact that makes returning him to history a difficult affair. After a long day, the group headed out for dinner at an African tapas restaurant. It was a truly unique dining experience!

Tuesday morning began with a tour of the new permanent World Cultures galleries at NMS. Although there was only time for a snap-shot overview, one could clearly see the frequency with which missionary collections were implemented in the displays, although the missionary context was often not emphasized when these objects were presented to the public. This seems to be the fate of missionary collections around the country, while curators and the public are familiar and to some extent comfortable with the narrative of explorers and exploration in contemporary museum displays – how missionary collections are presented is a much bigger challenge.

In the summing up discussions, one contributor noted the large number of Pacific specialists in attendance and wondered if more Africanists could perhaps be involved.  To my mind this was to miss the point, what our gathering was able to achieve was to look beyond the locale of our own individual research; it presented an opportunity to use our own experiences to bring into focus the shared ideas that shaped the missionary endeavour.

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