9 June 2019

[Re:]Entanglements: Re-engaging a colonial archive in postcolonial times

This week we have another project profile on the MEG blog, Theo Borgvin-Weiss (Project Research Associate & PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge) has written about [Re:]Entanglements.  If you would like us to profile a project you are working on then please email web@museumethnographers.org.uk

Between 1909 and 1915 the British Colonial Office in London despatched Northcote Thomas, a Cambridge history graduate and folklorist, to Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone to conduct a series of surveys of the region’s people and ‘customary laws’. Thomas’ tours were conducted against a background of colonial anxiety over how best to govern the region, so were intended to inform British policies of indirect rule. At the same time, Thomas’ close and prolonged engagement with local people proved to be an important (albeit controversial) moment in the development of academic anthropology. The significance of Thomas’s work, including the extensive ethnographic archives that he and his local assistants amassed, has, however, remained largely unexamined until now.

[Re:]Entanglements, an ongoing 3-year project led by Paul Basu of SOAS and part of the AHRC-funded ‘MuseumAffordances’ project, aims to better understand the material legacies of Thomas’s surveys – comprising photographs, sound recordings, artefacts, botanical specimens, fieldnotes and reports – and to rethink their significance today. The project involves participants from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the UK, each bringing different perspectives to bear on the collection. In doing so, the aim is to explore both what functions Thomas’ collecting and documentation activities were intended to perform at the time of their creation and, crucially, what value such a rich but colonially-implicated archive might have in the present – within modern-day Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Britain. By confronting the problematics of this collection, the project explores whether, as a resource, it nevertheless contains latent possibilities for decolonisation and repair.
Phonographic sound recording, Agila, Present-day Benue state, Nigeria.  Photograph by Northcote Thomas, 1913
 MAA P.32756

[A selection of flutes collected by Northcote Thomas during surveys of Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities in the collections of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.]

Given that Thomas was the first Government Anthropologist appointed by the British Colonial Office to study Africa, his three expeditions to Southern Nigeria (1909-13) and final tour in Sierra Leone (1914-15) represent early experiments in government-sponsored ethnography and reflect ongoing negotiations between the production of knowledge and power. His expeditions were important test-cases, establishing what practical application the nascent academic discipline of anthropology might have for colonial governance. But they also reveal ongoing tensions between Colonial Office policy makers in London and the colonial governments in West Africa, in which the latter were often strongly resistant to outside interference. As things turned out, the information produced by Thomas’s surveys was not easily translatable into practical action and the experiment was widely perceived as a failure. As a result, this rich archive drifted into relative obscurity.

Mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Ibillo, Nigeria, in 1910. MAA Z 26531.

During 55 months of fieldwork over 6 years, Thomas and his assistants recorded both the artistic and everyday – often capturing intimate aspects of local life. He and his team amassed vast amounts of information - making thousands of photographs, producing hundreds of wax-cylinder phonograph recordings, and collecting botanical specimens as well as both ceremonial and everyday objects – acquired mainly via purchase and direct commission. Thomas published his findings in a series of multi-volume reports and academic articles. Today, this fascinating multimedia archive is dispersed across numerous institutions, including the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), the British Library, the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the National Museum Lagos, among others – all partners in the project.

The first stage of the [Re:]Entanglements project catalogued and researched the collection itself, bringing the widely-scattered sound, image and object collections together for the first time in over 100 years. Collections-based research has generated several specific studies, covering subjects such as the Igugu masquerades of southeast Nigeria, Thomas’ documentation of a wrestling festival in the North Edo town of Otuo, and modern-day facial scarification (Ichi) ceremonies in Anambra State – all reported on the project blog. In the UK, UCL Museum Conservation students are currently preparing objects from the collection for exhibitions at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery (2020) and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (2021). Meanwhile, the collections-based research is also informing current fieldwork activities in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Postdoctoral researcher George Agbo and traditional Igbo carver Chief Anaemena discuss photographs of wood carvings collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911

Traditional wood carver, Felix Ekhator, in his workshop in Sakponba Road, Benin City.

An important aspect of the project, now in its second year, is engaging with communities in areas where Thomas worked more than a century ago. Given the range of technologies utilised by Thomas and the precision of his fieldnotes, it has often been possible to pinpoint specific source locations. Consequently, Paul Basu and postdoctoral research assistant George Agbo have been retracing Thomas’ itineraries, sharing photographs and recordings made by Thomas with local people. This has produced interesting results. For instance, with musical instruments – where recordings made in the early 20th century have been played to current Sierra Leonean musicians, prompting discussion of change and continuity in style and instrumentation. A further study considered developments in wood-carving technique through discussions with carvers from Benin City, who responded to examples collected in the region over a century ago.

Impromptu exhibition of Northcote Thomas’s photographs in Musaia, northern Sierra Leone. Photograph by Paul Basu.

In its third and final year, [Re:]Entanglements will explore its key themes through exhibition experiments, art and film in order to engage with the collection directly and to capture contemporary responses to it. So far, the British-Nigerian artist ChiadikĊbi Nwaubani has offered a series of poignant responses to Thomas’ photographs. Workshops have taken place in Benin City, Nsukka and Freetown, where artists are currently producing work in response to the archives and collections. In the UK, a filmproject entitled Faces|Voices  records the reactions of members of African heritage communities in the UK to ‘physical type’ photographic portraits made by Thomas, capturing powerfully the varied – and often surprising – responses that contemporary voices can bring to bear on ethnographic collections, their colonial entanglements and their potential legacies.

To follow the [Re:]Entanglements project and or to get involved with discussions see the project blog or join the project’s Facebook group .

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