30 March 2019

Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections

Neck Ornament. (C) Trustees of the Powell Cotton Museum
Our project profile this month is by Nicola Stylianou, explaining what she gets up to when she's not being MEG web officer. 

This project, which is led by the University of Sussex and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, aims to further both conceptual and applied debates over ‘decolonizing’ public institutions.  In particular it explores the role of regional museums who are often overlooked in these discussions.  It focuses on three Museums in Sussex and Kent: Brighton Museum &Art Gallery, The Royal Engineers Museum and the Powell-Cotton Museum. These museums all hold collections of international significance assembled between 1890 and 1940, whose journeys to the South coast began in missionary, military and ethnographic encounters respectively.  The diversity of these collections, held in very different sorts of museums, provides an ideal opportunity for responding to the Tropen Museum’s (2017) call for recognition of complexity, not only in the histories of colonial holdings but also in potential ‘decolonial’ responses.  

 While the collections share colonial-era origins, they are in some ways radically different and thus provide an ideal basis for research into varied possibilities and constraints.  In each case museum staff and researchers are working closely with counterparts from universities, museums and heritage organisations in the places from where the collections originated.

The project launched in January and in February project partners from Sudan, Botswana, Namibia and various parts of the UK all met at Brighton Museum for the first project meeting.  The day began with a large group discussion and then broke into three groups to discuss the three museum collections. Winani Thebele, Scobie Lekhutile and Napandulwe Shiweda also spoke at a seminar on the topic of 'Heritage in Southern Africa:  debating decolonizing agendas'.

The three specific collections the project is studying are:
1)    Artefacts from Botswana (300 objects) that were loaned and later donated to Brighton Museum by Rev. Willoughby a prominent figure in the London Missionary Society (LMS).  Willoughby served in Southern Africa and while running a mission at Phalapye during the 1890s collected these objects.  Brighton Museum are working alongside colleagues from the National Museum of Botswana, the Khama III Memorial Museum and Brighton and Hove Black History to understand more about these objects.  

2)    Materials from the Namibia/Angola borderlands (approximately 3,000 objects) held in the Powell-Cotton Museum, a particular strength of the collection is Kwanyama material.  The objects were collected by sisters Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton during two expeditions in 1936 and 1937.  It is probably the largest collection of Angolan material in Europe and is supplemented by photographs, films, diaries and detailed notes. Extensive archival research is being done on this collection with advice from Dr Napandulwe Shiweda (University of Namibia).

3)   Artefacts from Sudan (153 objects) held at the Royal Engineers’ Museum in the UK as a direct result of British military aggression in the late nineteenth century.  These objects are being studied alongside letters, scrap books and photos. Research on this collection is being carried out with advice from members of the Sudanese diaspora and Shams Al Aseel Charitable Initiative, an NGO focussing on Mahdist material culture.
Reem Alhilou, JoAnn McGregor, Osman Nusairi and Fergus Nicoll look at scrapbook in the REM archive.

Planned outputs include a series of co-produced displays (2020), an online resource which will offer access to 600 historic artefacts as well as written and photographic archival material, an edited book, journal articles, new Wikipedia content, policy advice and the return (on loan in the first place) of nineteenth-century material to Botswana, for display at a regional museum: the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe. 

MakingAfrican Connections is funded by the AHRC. Project Reference AH/S001271/1

PhD Opportunity: Reframing Oceania: towards new narratives of the colonial Pacific in the British Museum

A Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship between the British Museum and UCL, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Start date: 1st October 2019

Application Deadline: 12 April
Interviews will take place on 24 April

Dr Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum)

Prof. Margot Finn (UCL)

Project Overview

This PhD project will interrogate archives, objects and images in the British Museum pertaining to Oceania to identify what new stories emerge and consider how these histories of the colonial Pacific could be constructed and publicly presented. Attentive to individual histories and Indigenous agency, the project will promote new perspectives on the distinctive histories of Pacific Islanders and their relationship with other parts of the world, particularly Britain. The emphasis will be on the period c.1820-1920.

This project aims to go beyond research focused only on specific places, object types, or specific collectors to consider how the ensemble of resources about these collections can be interrogated to generate new narratives. It will address inter-relationships and broad themes relevant across the Pacific, and can draw on examples from any place, group of people, or object. There will be room for the student to shape the research within this broad context.

As well as opportunities for working with the collections in London, there will be networking opportunities to work with colleagues and communities in Oceania as well as at the British Museum.

Full details and information about how to appy can be found on the UCL website.

PhD opportunity: Leather trousers and Leopard skin waistcoats: Missing objects and endangered material knowledge in the Kalahari

A Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship between the British Museum and the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Start date: 1st October 2019
Stoffel Speelman by William Burchell

Application Deadline: Friday 3rd May 2019 at 23h59min
Interviews will take place on Monday 20th May 2019 at UEA in Norwich

Dr Chris Wingfield (Sainsbury Research Unit)

Prof. Ceri Ashley (British Museum)

Project Overview 
In a letter to his brother dated 12 April 1823, the early missionary to South Africa, Robert Moffat (1951, 72), wrote:

As to clothing, I shall first mention what can be procured here. I often wear a Bichuana cap made of fox [jackal] skins. Trousers of a prepared antelope skin… Last winter I had a waistcoat and jacket made of tiger [leopard] skin for the cold weather.

The British Museum holds a number of artefacts sent to London by Moffat, acquired from the London Missionary Society museum (Wingfield 2018), but, sadly, no leather trousers or leopard skin waistcoats. In attempting to tell alternative stories that challenge museum visitors’ perceptions about the past, it can become necessary to consider objects that did not find their way into museum collections, and to explore ways in which they may nevertheless be implicated in these collections.

The primary focus of this project are the relevant historic collections at the British Museum: a number of more traditional leather items, as well as needles and needle cases (some made from leather), and knives (some with sheaths made from leather). Worn suspended from the neck by leather straps, these speak to the significance of leather processing in the daily lives of many nineteenth century Kalahari residents.

This PhD will involve working with relevant collections alongside historic accounts to develop a detailed understanding of nineteenth century leather and skin processing in the Kalahari. It is anticipated that it will also involve a period of fieldwork, working with partners in Botswana, to document contemporary methods used by craftspeople in the region today.

Fulll details of the project and information about how to apply are available on the UEA website.

PhD Opportunity: The historic role of missionary societies in shaping children’s understandings of Britain’s place in the world

A Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship between the National Maritime Museum and the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council
The Hope of the World, Harold Copping

Start date: October 2019

Application Deadline: Friday 3rd May 2019 at 23h59min
Interviews will take place on Tuesday 21stMay 2019 in Greenwich

Dr Chris Wingfield (Sainsbury Research Unit)
Dr Robert Blyth (National Maritime Museum)

Project Overview 
In The Making of English National Identity (2003) Krishan Kumar argued that English identity was characterised by a form of ‘missionary nationalism’:

a nationalism that finds its principle not so much in equating state and nation as in extending the supposed benefits of a particular nation’s rule and civilization to other peoples. 

Kumar did not, however, particularly probe the ‘missionary’ component of ‘missionary nationalism’ – the degree to which exposure to missionary propaganda from a young age profoundly shaped the political, cultural and social attitudes adopted by many children in later life.

For generations of children growing up in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain,
 it was at Sunday school that they first came into contact with images of people living in other parts of the world. The scale of this impact should not to be underestimated. Susan Thorne (2006, 143) has suggested that ‘virtually every working-class child attended Britain’s massively popular Sunday Schools at one point or another’.

Images commissioned by Britain’s missionary societies formed part of their extensive educational programmes, and frequently embodied ideas about Britain’s providential role in the world (Brewer 2005). We might read these in terms of nineteenth-century ideas about ‘the White Man’s burden’, and as part of what we might now call historical constructions of ‘whiteness’, or perhaps more controversially 'the white saviour complex'.

As Britain embarks on a new chapter in its relationship with the wider world, it becomes increasingly important to re-consider the ways in which this relationship has been imagined in the past. While ‘decolonisation’ has become a buzzword in both museum and academic circles, it has frequently been associated with the attitudes and positions associated with ‘high imperialism’. This project is intended to develop a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which forms of benevolent paternalism were shaped and propagated in the context of British missionary societies, through their engagements with children and young people across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Full details of the project and information about how to applay are available on the UEA website.

16 March 2019

'Fabric Africa: stories told through textiles.' Exhibition review by Sarah Worden.

We are delighted that Dr Sarah Worden has agreed to write a review of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery's current exhibition.  Sarah is Curator of African Collections at National Museums Scotland.  She has a particular interest in textiles and the role of clothing and dress in the expression of identity so is well place to review this exhibition!

Sarah Writes:

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s Fabric Africa special exhibition is a celebration of fashion and style, ‘a snapshot of the amazing world of African textiles’. The exhibition includes for the first time together highlights of textiles and clothing from the Museum’s World Cultures and British and Empire and Commonwealth collections which date from the late 1800’s to the present day and come from countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Mali and Swaziland.

Fundamentally clothing is all about the people who make and wear them. It is always a challenge in static museum displays to recreate the dynamic contexts in which textiles function. Here the multi-layered and vibrant pattern and texture of just under sixty objects make a powerful, visually exciting statement and one which demands and holds the visitor’s attention. The range of materials and construction techniques found in African textiles is extensive and many feature in the outfits on display, including robes and wrappers of indigo-dyed cotton cloth from the Hausa in northern Nigeria, a heavily embroidered tunic from Cameroon, and a hand-woven silk kente cloth from Ghana, which will be of interest to textile students and practitioners.
View of an area of the Fabric Africa exhibition (c) Bristol Culture

Interpretation of the displays is organised into four interconnected themes covering Fashion; Exchange; Communication and Status which introduces historic and contemporary connections between individuals, communities and countries. Information about the objects is presented through a series of thought provoking questions. Do your clothes tell people where you are from? What makes African fabric African? Information includes an introduction to the commercial connections between Africa and Britain through which the huge variety of factory cotton printed cloths circulated between Britain and Africa, and within a number of African countries for local markets. The displays include Malawian chitenje printed with logos and portraits which show political party affiliation and Kenyan kanga cloths printed with proverbs and symbols representing shared traditions which exemplify the communicative potential of clothing. Other collections highlights include the huge tailored and embroidered robes from northern and southern Nigeria which represent centuries old traditions of high status dress influenced by Islam. 

(c) Bristol Culture

The item of clothing which to my mind sums up the exhibition is the distinctive wedding dress created by Audrey Migot with Bristolian designer Karen Reilly, for her wedding in Bristol in 2016 (pictured, right). A  Kenyan woman, living in Bristol, she wore a tailored dress of West African prints originally produced in Europe. Audrey is one of four African individuals living in Bristol whose personal stories relating to the role of textiles in their cultural heritage have been recorded for the visitor to engage with contemporary perspectives from the African diaspora.
The subject of African textiles and dress is rich and multi-layered, expressing similarities and differences between cultures. This exhibition also introduces the Bristol Museum’s World Cultures African textile collections to researchers of African textiles, which is a very positive outcome, and contributes to the new research on the collections of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) which in 2012 were transferred to the care of Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives. This is a major collection which covers a wide range of material relating to the countries of the British Empire and the Commonwealth and one with huge research potential. 

This exhibition is a lively introduction of African textiles for visitors, not only to the eclectic and the unfamiliar, but also a means to compare connections between cultures, both old and new.  To supplement their gallery visit, schools can borrow one of the special African textiles handling boxes to feel different African textiles, try on garments, discover who made them and how they were created, which makes a great additional resource. African textiles are a subject of particular interest to me, and I was delighted to visit Bristol, talk to curator Lisa Graves about the development of the exhibition and share her enthusiasm for the fascinating textiles in the World Cultures collection held in Bristol. 

Interested in finding out more about the Fabric Africa exhibition?  Last year curator Lisa Graves wrote about the thinking behind the exhibtion for the MEG blog.  

If you would like to write a review for the MEG blog please get in touch!  web@museumethnographersgroup.org.uk