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


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Subject to sustained postcolonial critique, historical ethnographic collections have often been withdrawn from display and have lain dormant and inaccessible in off-site stores.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.


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