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

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