17 April 2013

Who Cares?: Cambridge Missionary Heritage Workshop

By Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp
Horniman Museum

Workshop participants, including Father Ben Wate, in the Bevan workroom, MAA Cambridge
The second of three Arts and Humanities Research Council funded workshops exploring the material legacy of missionary encounters took place in Cambridge on 22nd and 23rd of March 2013. Whilst the first and the last are thematically positioned to explore African and Pacific contexts respectively, this focused more directly on the material archive located in the UK. As it transpired, members of the group agreed that they do indeed ‘care’ about this dispersed collection of documents and objects, demonstrated by caring for it in archives, museums and religious spaces. ‘Care’ is of course also a question of significance. Indeed this workshop, hosted by the MAA and the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, highlighted the importance of such an archive as a research tool for engaging with the past and exploring its mediation in the present. Rev. Ben Wate, representative of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, demonstrated a different kind of significance. His fascinating paper explored the continuing spiritual potency of material associated with the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, Bishop John Patterson, in the Solomon Islands. This challenged my expectations with regards to the significance of collections outside of European museums, often defined by the idea that objects may have a particular political or spiritual potency in the context they originally came from. In this case, it was the objects associated with Patterson which were evocative for the Anglican population of the Solomon Islands, rather than the ethnographic material he collected.

The workshop highlighted the ambiguous and contradictory nature of the missionary process and the collections that have derived from it. As is becoming increasingly clear, there is a tendency to perhaps too readily apply Dirks ‘technologies of rule’ as a means of understanding the colonial past as a series of one-sided and autocratic encounters. In such a context, one might assume that all these collections were amassed with a clear agenda in mind, supporting the missionary endeavour by supplying evocative evidence of non-Christian behaviour such as idol worship or cannibalism. Prior to the workshop I compiled a list of the easily identifiable missionary collections at the Horniman; of the 3286 I found, the majority rather seemed to be the more mundane everyday objects one might associate with later anthropological material. Professor David Maxwell’s presentation forced us to think differently about the nature of missionary collections, exploring the contradictions emerging through the work of William F. P. Burton for the Assemblies of God Mission in Belgian Congo. Burton seemed to be simultaneously concerned with both the preservation and destruction of local beliefs and practices, publishing articles for scientific journals and missionary propaganda outlets. Although representatives of missionary institutions, it seems paramount to think about missionary collections as the products of individual interests and experiences. As was later highlighted in discussion, this poses an important question about how we think about and curate missionary material given the difficulties in defining it as a comprehensive ‘collection.' For example, whilst we have over 1000 objects from the Church Missionary Society at the Horniman, the individuals behind the collections are often lost. The subsequent dispersal of this collection means that it will in many ways always remain incomplete.

Karen Jacobs introduced the workshop by highlighting another seeming contradiction which continued through further discussions and presentations throughout the day. A recent BBC news article explored how despite being known as ‘Africa’s greatest missionary’, Livingstone’s missionary legacy in Zambia was driven by his only actual convert, Schele, a Bakwena chief who independently continued his own process of conversion and was paramount to the Christianisation of Southern Africa. Likewise, David Maxwell’s presentation spoke of the agency of Burton’s Pentecostal informants who worked alongside him in both amassing and interpreting objects which have ended up in UK museum collections. In a similar vein, Rev. Ben Wate’s discussion highlighted the importance of the missionary past to the Solomon Islands and the respect and reverence accorded to those Europeans who bought the Anglican Church to the area. In each context, the traditional power polarities of missionary and convert were challenged, and the agency of converts in the creation of missionary histories highlighted.

This brings the idea of shared histories to the foreground: a theme which seemed to weave in and out of discussions throughout the day. Rosemary Seton introduced us to the process of developing Mundus: an online reference tool for locating missionary archives. This excellent resource builds on the importance of opening up access to reference material, and an updated or alternative version locating missionary objects was discussed as an outcome of the networking project. A proposal was made to attempt to provide access to museum catalogue information concerning dispersed missionary collections through an online resource. This developed into an interesting discussion about ownership and the ethics surrounding the notion that all such material should be made public. Who, for example, decides whether or not it is appropriate to publish the large missionary photographic collection and should censorship be implemented for sensitive or offensive texts and images? Rev. Ben Wate’s presentation requested both caution and collaboration in the decision making process surrounding access. It seems this is something important to take forward, as was concluded by a participant in the final remarks. This is indeed a complex history which has many different facets and multiple stake-holders, and I look forward to teasing this out through further discussion.

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