Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Global Studies

Abstract

Museums have been among the prime targets of recent activism demanding the 'decolonization' of British institutions, stimulated by Rhodes Must Fall and other campaigns. This is because their historic artefacts act as potent symbolic reminders of imperial afterlives. Some museums have responded with various initiatives to engage 'source' communities and in rare instances, dialogue has been initiated over returns. Yet small museums face acute cuts, dramatically reduced capacity and pressures for business models, in which colonial collections are far from priorities, especially where museums' very existence is under threat. In a climate of austerity, many are unable to invest in the research that is necessary to translate calls for 'decolonizing' into practical initiatives. Significant ethnographic holdings are thus unused and known, are displayed in a manner that occludes or inadvertently perpetuates coloniality and are inaccessible to Africans.

This interdisciplinary project will research historic African collections held in Sussex and Kent Museums with the aim of furthering both conceptual and applied debates over 'decolonizing' public institutions. It focuses on three specific collections of known international significance assembled between 1890 and 1940, whose journeys to the South coast began in military, missionary and ethnographic encounters in Botswana, Sudan and the Namibia/Angola borderlands. The project will extend debates in cultural geography, art history, museum studies and digital humanities, by adopting a critical, participatory, practice-based mode of research that builds new African connections through innovative digital and co-curation strategies. The regional focus stems from the revelation by the Arts Council-funded 'Uncovering ethnography in Kent and Sussex' project, that museums in the South-east had unused historic African collections of unanticipated scale and value. 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.

The project asks: What are the 'decolonial' possibilities for African collections in Sussex and Kent Museums, and how can these further debates over decolonizing British public institutions in both theory and practice? The research is based on collaboration with: three South coast museums (the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, The Royal Engineers Museum and the Powell-Cotton Museum of Natural History and Ethnography); African museums and heritage organizations (the Khama Memorial and Botswana National Museums, the Museums Association of Namibia and Al-Mahdiyya Restoration NGO), as well as UK-based African diasporic interest groups.

Through the research, a minimum of 600 artefacts will be digitized and (re)catalogued. The project will engage spatially dispersed publics in Britain and Africa by co-curating four displays (three in Sussex and Kent Museums, and the fourth in Botswana based on objects loaned from Brighton). An innovative interactive digital archive will link objects to contextual information and different interpretations, while a Wikimedian-in-residence will enable interaction with global publics via the world's foremost media repository. Creating intersections between Wikimedians, Continental- and diapora-based African interest groups and global scholarly networks will maximize new opportunities for knowledge exchange and greater cultural, historical and political understanding. Through both scholarly publications and policy briefings, the project will further cutting edge debates over how to redress colonial legacies and enable museums to meet twenty-first century goals of accessibility, inclusivity and social justice.

Planned Impact

Making African Connections targets the following non-academic beneficiaries:
1. Collaborating museums
a) Kent and Sussex museums will benefit from historical, digital and curatorial research on collections they have identified as internationally valuable yet poorly understood; in some cases, their artefacts will be catalogued and displayed for the first time. The research will bring them into a host of new networks: between museums in the region as well as with African museums; with academics and students; with spatially dispersed global publics and specialist interest groups in Africa and her diaspora. The project's digital component will bring new visibility to hitherto underused objects, in a manner that reflects agenda-setting and innovative methods to capture provenance data, diverse interpretations and on-going global responses. Institutions marginalised by current state funding regimes and disadvantaged by geographical locations outside major cities, some of which have struggled to position themselves centrally in debates over innovative museological practice will have the opportunity to co-design, trial and assess new initiatives for diverse colonial-era collections. This will enable them to further 'decolonizing' ambitions of twenty-first century British public institutions aspiring to meet ethical, inclusive, community-building roles, and to deal with imperial pasts in a manner that works towards justice in the present and future. They will benefit from the displays created by the project, Wikimedia training and afterlives ensured through the digital component.
b) African Museums. The Botswana National Museum and Khama Memorial Museum, which lack nineteenth century artefacts in their own collections will benefit from the loan of Brighton materials, enabling them to display these objects for the first time in Botswana, while archival research and digitizing of provenance and contextual data (derived from UK archives as well as new sources in Botswana and South Africa) will add to understanding of Botswana's transnational and regional cross border connections. This provides a unique opportunity to engage Botswana local publics in memory work and cutting edge debates over international partnerships, digital access and loaning. Curators will be brought into new relationships with Brighton Museum and other project stakeholders, including networks of Africanist scholars and local black history interest groups. The Museums Association of Namibia and the Heritage Association of Southern Africa will also benefit from the newly visible data and new connections.

2. African and African diasporic interest groups. The project's participatory design and engagement of spatially dispersed interest groups in African heritage is particularly timely in this UN decade of people of African descent. They stand not only to gain new insight into imperial connections and object journeys, but will also be central to their interpretation in the digital and curatorial aspects of the project. Co-researchers and curators of Botswanan, Namibian and Sudanese heritage and local black history groups will steer the research, production of digital resources and displays. Wikimedia training will empower these groups with knowledge and skills in cutting edge open access tools.

3. Broader British museum-visiting publics in the UK, global users of the digital archive and Wikimedia will gain insight to diverse imperial pasts, specific Africa connections and African perspectives thereon that do not mask the physical and epistemic violence of imperial expansion and domination, while also conveying complexity and allowing multiple interpretations.

4. Museum policy networks and organizations will benefit from the policy briefing on working with colonial collections to meet de-colonial ambitions. The project will reach UK, European and international museum professionals at the final workshop and conference presentations.

Publications

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