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

10 25 50
 
Description The most significant achievement to date (mid-way) is the creation of the project website www.makingafricanconnections.org, which is an interactive tool and work-in-progress. The research has involved digitization of three important collections of colonial-era African artefacts from each of three partner institutions, namely Brighton Museum (a nineteenth century collection from Botswana), Royal Engineers Museum (a nineteenth century collection from Sudan) and the Powell Cotton Museum (a 1930s collection from the Angola/Namibia borderlands). The digital images are visible on the project website, alongside new object descriptions and other relevant research materials, which include contextual archives, interview and film material from fieldwork. The website includes a blog on the research process. Other significant achievements from the research include the preliminary findings of archival research around each collection, a collection of new oral histories and interview transcripts, film footage of the field research process. The project website is designed as an interactive tool to facilitate the presentation of multiple interpretations of the collection, and to capture other project data, such as responses to the Museum exhibitions, which are currently in preparation. Brighton and Hove Black History Project were consultant local history researchers, and they have delivered their final report on their work on local archival holdings relevant to Rev William Charles Willoughby who collected the nineteenth century Botswanan artefacts held at Brighton Museum: their research dwelt in particular on the visit to Brighton by three Botswana kings in 1895, their extraordinary diplomacy during the visit and capacity to win over local audiences to their cause, and the warm reception they received from Brighton churches and schools, as reported in the local press.
Exploitation Route Our partner museums, who were envisaged as our primary collaborators, have already begun to take forward the findings of this research. Specifically, the Powell Cotton Museum has made a bid for Arts Council funding to further funds to conduct their own field research to complement that undertaken by this project. The aims of this research will be to undertake some contemporary collecting to recast their current displays of their Angolan/Namibian materials, and to build links with African researchers and institutions who are interested parties in the historic objects in their collection. Brighton and Hove Black History Project have completed their section of the local history research, and have recommended the development of schools resources based thereon.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.makingafricanconnections.org
 
Description The findings of the research have been used by Powell Cotton Museum (one of our partner institutions) for a further bid to the Arts Council England (ACE) to undertake contemporary collection and further research in Namibia to inform a new display including video and interactive materials. This initiative stemmed from the emphasis placed in our findings of the importance of including Namibian voices, such that the creators of museum objects are speaking for themselves about their work displayed in the museum. These findings were communicated clearly by Dr Napandulwe Shiweda, of University of Namibia, during her research at Powell Cotton on the Angolan/Namibian collections. The ACE grant was awarded in January 2020.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Title Making African Connections Website 
Description The project website brings together digital images of the three collections, together with descriptions of the artefacts and related archival and audio-visual materials. It is designed as an interactive tool, which will capture further interpretations of the objects and will be updated on an on-going basis. It is intended as a means of bringing together information across the three collections in our study and therefore across three museums different cataloguing systems. It will be a means of making connections in subsequent periods of the research 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The objects in the museum collections have been rendered visible to global publics (anyone with a smart phone or access to the internet) for the first time. This is particularly significant as a means of reaching potential African diaspora user groups around the world, as well as African publics within the continent. 
 
Description "The Future of African Collections" panel at Museum's Association conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tshepo Skwambane and Helen Mears participated in a panel discussion on the subject of "The Future of African Collections" at the Museum's Association conference. One of the outcomes of this was increased enthusiasm for the project from senior management at one of the other partner institutions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Annual Symposium of the Society for the Study of the Sudans UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Annual Symposium of the Society for the Study of the Sudans UK (SSSUK), SOAS, London, 7 September 2019: Fergus Nicoll and Osman Nusairi meetings with academics, representatives of museums and members of the Sudanese diaspora.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Arts Council England - Restitution guidance working group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Helen Mears is participating in the Arts Council England - Restitution guidance working group which is focussed on developing new guidelines for the UK museum sector on restitution and repatriation (an update of the guidelines issued by the MGC in 2000).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Conference Paper - ECAS 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Nicola Stylianou delivered a paper at the European Conference of African Studies, the largest conference for African area studies in Europe. The paper was 'Making African connections around collections in Sussex and Kent Museums' and was given on a panel addressing museum collections and their histories. As a result of this paper Nicola met with prominent academics from Southern Africa and an early career researcher from Portugal working on a similar topic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Conference paper - Museum Ethnographers Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Nicola Stylianou delivered a paper in the 'provocations' section of the Museum Ethnographers Group annual conference. The theme of the conference was 'Trust, harm and ethnographic display.' and the paper was entitled 'Making and Sustaining African connections.' This was an important opportunity to engage with museum professionals and talk about the issues the project is addressing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.museumethnographersgroup.org.uk/en/conference/428-conference-2019-trust-harm-and-ethnogra...
 
Description Discussion Panel on Decolonisation at Africa Centre, London 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Nicola Stylianou participated in a panel discussion on decolonisation at 'Changing the Narrative' a two day event sponsored by Informer East Africa and organised by the Muesum of British Colonialism at Africa Centre, London. While at the event Nicola was approached by a number of individuals for more information. As a direct result of this event she spoke to Alan Kunna who has agreed to contribute to the project and has invited Nicola to do a workshop with the students at Newham Sixth Form College.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.museumofbritishcolonialism.org/museum-events/2020/1/11/informer-east-africa-and-mbc-pres...
 
Description Empowering Collections - Museum's Association Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Kelly Foster, a Wikipedian-in-residence for the Making African Connections project, discussed digital repatriation as a strand of decolonial practice.
Kathleen Lawther, who has been working as a collections assistant on the project, discussed the importance of documentation as a tool for access.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Meeting, History Department, University of Botswana 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact 10 members of the University of Botswana History Department attended a meeting to hear about the research conducted and planned, sparking discussion over further involvement of the history department in the form of a formal one day workshop to coincide with the return of the C19th artefacts from Brighton to Khama III Memorial Museum. The historians reported a change of attitude towards museum artefacts, which they had seen as ahistorical and associated with ethnographic, archaeological and natural history expertise. After the meeting they described an increased interest in ninetheenth century museum collections as potential historical source.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to Durham University History Department Seminar, 'Making African Connections from Sussex and Kent Museums: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to academic colleagues in Durham University History Department, with question and answer and animated discussion
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Project profile for Museum Ethnographers Group website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project was profiled on the Museum Ethnographers Group website. Nicola Stylianou wrote the profile.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://museumethnographersgroup.blogspot.com/2019/03/making-african-connections-decolonial.html
 
Description Project profiled in the Museum Associations Collections 2030 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Making African Connections project was a casestudy in the Museum Association's 'Empowering collections' publication, which is part of its Collections 2030 project. Collections 2030 is a major research project looking at the long-term purpose, use and management of museum collections. It addresses two main themes: the culture of collections - how collections can be used and what we think they are for - and infrastructure - what we need in place to make our collections effective. This is a high profile and presitgious project so to be selected as a case study brought us to the attention of a much wider audience and resulted in a query from another museum in Kent about advice on decolonising their collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=1262818
 
Description Research Seminar for Sussex Africa Centre and Sussex Art history. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Nicola Stylianou delivered a research seminar entitled "Making African Connections: Angolan Artefacts in the Powell-Cotton Museum." This was the first time the Sussex Africa Centre and the Art History department jointly delivered a research seminar. It was well attended by students and staff from both departments and there was a lively discussion following the presentation. One PhD student approached the speaker to ask for advice about undertaking fieldwork around museum collections and a colleague from Art History approached the project to find out more about creating an online archive. JoAnn McGregor and NIcola Stylianou were also approached and asked if they would be interested in joining a (yet to be set up) heritage network working across disciplines and departments.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Seminar, Sussex Africa Centre, University of Sussex 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar on 'Decolonizing Museums in Southern Africa' with presentations by three visiting project partners from Southern Africa: Winani Thebele, Chief Ethnologist, Botswana National Museums (February 2019); Dr Napandulwe Shiweda, Senior Lecturer, University of Namibia; Mr Scobie Kekhutile, Curator Khama III Memorial Museum, Botswana. The seminar was chaired by Prof JoAnn McGregor and attended by staff, postgraduates and undergraduates from University of Sussex; staff and postdoctoral researchers from University of Brighton; members of third sector organizations involved in diversity and debates over decolonizing in Brighton and Lewes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019