Museum affordances: activating West African ethnographic archives and collections through experimental museology

Lead Research Organisation: School of Oriental & African Studies
Department Name: Anthropology and Sociology

Abstract

What do museums afford? What repertoires of action do they make possible? This project investigates the latent possibilities of museum collections, curatorial interventions, and innovative exhibition practices, focusing on the material legacies of colonial-era anthropological fieldwork and collecting. It explores how museums can activate such historical collections as catalysts for intercultural understanding, for recovering lost histories, repairing past injustices, building relationships, exchanging knowledge and engaging creatively across social and cultural boundaries.

Subject to sustained postcolonial critique, historical ethnographic collections have often been withdrawn from display and have lain dormant and inaccessible in off-site stores. More recently, renewed academic and museological interest has been provoked by the continued presence of these collections. Can they transcend the colonial contexts of their collection and be used as resources for decolonisation? The project is concerned with investigating and unlocking such 'action possibilities' latent within ethnographic collections. It seeks to activate the unrealized potential of collections through a series of experimental 'museum methods' we characterize as 'reassemblage', 'recirculation' and 'reconfiguration'.

The focus of the project's experimental museology is a remarkable, but largely unresearched, assemblage of objects, photographs, sound recordings, field notes and publications that constitute the legacy of a series of anthropological surveys conducted in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. The surveys were undertaken by N. W. Thomas, the first professional anthropologist to be employed by the British colonial authorities to gather ethnographic data intended to support policies of indirect rule in West Africa. Despite, or perhaps because of, Thomas's achievements as an ethnographer, his work was perceived to have little value in colonial governance. Within a short time, the rich ethnographic database Thomas assembled was disarticulated and dispersed, ending up in diverse institutions including Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Pitt Rivers Museum, National Archives, Royal Anthropological Institute and British Library. Building on our pilot studies, the project will fully reassemble, for the first time in a century, Thomas's collections, rearticulating object, sound, image and text in order to understand their past, present and future-oriented affordances.

The concept of affordances has been developed and applied in the fields of perceptual psychology, interaction design and material culture studies. Perception of the affordances (the latent action possibilities) of environments, technologies, things and practices is relational, situational and perspectival. The project will investigate the distinct affordances of this unique ethnographic archive at different times and for differently-situated actors. Through innovative curatorial interventions that seek to recirculate the collections, and exhibitionary strategies that reconfigure them, the project explores what 'governmental' actions the collections were perceived to afford when they were originally assembled, and, importantly, what positive and negative 'heritage affordances' they possess today: for present-day populations in the places where they were collected; for diasporic Nigerian and Sierra Leonean communities in the UK; for contemporary artists engaging with colonial pasts; for educators; for general audiences.

Project activities include collections-based research across various institutions; fieldwork and 'ethnographic restudy' along the routes of Thomas's original itineraries in West Africa; collaboration with contemporary artists and multimedia producers; international knowledge exchange events bridging museum scholarship and practice; and the staging of innovative 'exhibition experiments' designed to engage with diverse publics.

Planned Impact

The potential benefits that museums and archives afford society remains under-explored. This is especially true of historical ethnographic collections, which, though costly to maintain, have often been withdrawn from display and lie dormant in stores. The project investigates how the latent affordances of these collections can be activated to benefit diverse constituencies. While the project focuses on a particular assemblage of objects, photographs and sound recordings from West Africa, it has much more general application and will benefit a wide variety of museum, archive and heritage institutions and their audiences. Through activating the affordances of a particular collection, the project demonstrates how institutions can explore the action possibilities latent in their own collections for the benefit of society.

More specifically, the research will benefit:

1. Public sector organisations, including project partners such as the British Library and National Archives, significantly enhancing the value of their collections, and providing opportunities for public engagement beyond their existing outreach programmes. The project will directly inform the redisplay of African collections at MAA and inform debates concerning the controversial Benin bronzes.

2. Professional and practitioner groups, including museum and archive professionals. A series of international workshops will be organised with partner institutions to foster knowledge exchange across the academic/practitioner divide. In a mutual exploration of 'museum methods', we seek to investigate the interface between scholarship and routine practice in the context of collections, curatorship and exhibitions. One output will be an open-access 'toolkit' targeted at museum/archive professionals, drawing together practical case studies from the research.

3. Public sector organisations, and professional/practitioner groups in West Africa. Professional capacity in museums and archives in Sierra Leone and Nigeria is low. During fieldwork, we will provide knowledge exchange/training workshops associated with the research at the national museums in Benin, Asaba and Freetown. Digital copies of photographic and sound archives will be deposited with contextual information, enabling their use in future exhibitions and educational initiatives.

4. Third sector, including organisations and individuals in the creative and performing arts. The project will explore the 'artistic affordances' of collections through the use of creative practice as research method. This will entail collaborations in the UK and West Africa, including working with the Nigerian Art Society and multimedia creative studio The Light Surgeons, as well as running workshops in association with the art schools in Auchi and Nsukka. Artwork produced through these interventions will be displayed alongside historical collections in a final public exhibition at the Brunei Gallery (London), MAA (Cambridge) and other venues.

5. Local communities and the wider public in the UK and West Africa. Public participation is central to the project's research aims and methods. Whether through community-based fieldwork following Thomas's historical itineraries in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, or engaging with diaspora/heritage communities in the UK, the project seeks to benefit historically-marginalized publics by providing physical and intellectual access to previously inaccessible cultural resources. Through innovative curatorial and exhibition techniques designed to elicit active public participation in the project, we seek to overcome perceived barriers that often separate people from museum and archive institutions, and foster a sense of positive re-possession of the ethnographic archive. We will work with SOAS's widening participation team on Black History Month events aimed at introducing under-represented young people to historical and anthropological research, and to higher education more generally.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Faces | Voices short film 
Description 18-minute film exploring contemporary responses to historical anthropological 'physical type' photographs taken by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Stimulated considerable debate around colonial archives and their contemporary value to different stakeholders; attracted interest of broadcasters regarding possible development of television production. 
URL https://re-entanglements.net/faces-voices/
 
Title Musical journey in the footsteps of N. W. Thomas 
Description Series of ethnomusicological sound recordings made in locations where N. W. Thomas worked in Sierra Leone in 1914-15. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Comments on project Facebook Group page 
URL https://re-entanglements.net/musical-journey/
 
Title Photographic Archives exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute 
Description Photographic exhibition including archival images and commissioned contemporary artwork. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Stimulated debate and discussion about history of the anthropology, the Royal Anthropological Institute and relationships with colonial governance. 
URL https://re-entanglements.net/photographic-affordances-exhibition/
 
Description Currently, this has mainly been about stimulating debate online and at public events.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description British Library 
Organisation The British Library
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Original research on 1063 recordings made by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 in National Sound Archive Contemporary field recordings in locations visited by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 to be deposited in National Sound Archive
Collaborator Contribution Access to 1063 sound recordings made by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 in National Sound Archive Small grant for making field recordings in Nigeria and Sierra Leone Participation in project steering group
Impact Enhanced database records for sound recordings made by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 Field recordings from locations visited by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915
Start Year 2018
 
Description Royal Anthropological Institute 
Organisation Royal Anthropological Institute
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Original research on approximately 5500 photographs taken by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 Enhanced database records for approximately 5500 photographs taken by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 'Photographic Affordances' exhibition, January to October 2018
Collaborator Contribution Digitisation of approximately 5500 glass plate negatives taken by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 Hosting of 'Photographic Affordances' exhibition, January to October 2018 Hosting of public meetings and events
Impact Enhanced database records for approximately 5500 glass plate negatives taken by N. W. Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 'Photographic Affordances' exhibition, January to October 2018 'Archival Affordances', RAI Photographic Salon (public event), 12 June 2018
Start Year 2018
 
Description Diasporic objects conference, Leiden 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Participation in public event/conference
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.materialculture.nl/en/events/diasporic-objects
 
Description Igbo Conference, 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Keynote speech at annual Igbo Conference, London, 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://igboconference.com/igboconference2018/
 
Description Museum Affordances, Volkerkune Museum, Zurich 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.kulturzueri.ch/kulturdatenbank-zurich/veranstaltungen/41802-6440-museum_affordances-colo...
 
Description Object Affordances, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public talk/workshop
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.materialculture.nl/en/events/paul-basu-object-affordances
 
Description Project website and blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Project website and blog, established at start of project. January 2018 to March 2019 statistics: 605,893 site visits by 13,681 unique visitors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
URL https://re-entanglements.net
 
Description RAI Photography Salon 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Royal Anthropological Institute, Photography Salon public event
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.therai.org.uk/events-calendar/eventdetail/577/-/rai-photographic-salon-archival-affordan...