Decolonising the archive of British ethnographic collections

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The movement surrounding the restitution of cultural artefacts from museum archives across Europe and the United Kingdom is intensifying amid renewed calls to decolonise cultural institutions. But while these debates have been largely confined to academic and political spaces, a new exhibition at the South London Gallery (SLG) aims to engage with diverse young people in London to reconsider how archives from the height of British empire can be understood and re-purposed in present-day contexts.

The exhibition “An archive by other means” was curated by the Art Assassins, the SLG’s youth forum, after their interrogation of the archive of the early twentieth century British anthropologist Northcote W Thomas.  This unique ethnographic collection includes artefacts, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens and other materials collected in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. SOAS Professor of Anthropology Paul Basu is leading the re-engagement with these objects through the “Re:Entanglements” and “Museum Affordances” projects, which examine both their historical context and cultural significance today. 

archive; south london gallery
Art Assassins and Onyeka Igwe, Resetting the Record, 2020. Photo credit: South London Gallery

Since the postponement of the exhibition, the SLG held an online panel discussion on February 16 that brought together Professor Basu, researcher Emmanuelle Andrews, cultural consultant Yvonne Mbanefo, and museum conservator Carmen Vida to reflect on their work with the Northcote Thomas archive and address the issues of decolonisation and cultural restitution for communities in West Africa and the UK.  

Understanding decolonisation

“In some senses, it’s an impossible task to decolonise things that are in their essence colonial,” Professor Basu said during the panel, referring to the time period and the circumstances under which the items were collected. “Having said that, one of the shifts from an earlier postcolonial discussion to decoloniality is to recognize the ongoingness of coloniality … it’s about opening up possibilities for different ways of engaging.”

The opportunity for the Art Assassins to produce videos, a soundscape, fly-posters and dubplates for this exhibition is an example of one of the ways youth can be involved in contemporary dialogues about the archives. Emmanuelle Andrews, who worked closely with the young people as a researcher-in-residence at the SLG, noted: “It’s allowed us all to trouble the ease with which we might categorize things in an academic sense and actually think through how young people explore these questions.” 

The Re:Entanglements project has also opened up new questions and observations for the people involved in the archive’s rediscovery today. Yvonne Mbanefo, who is best known for her work in Igbo Studies and advocacy for African languages, translated a selection from about 750 audio recordings collected by Thomas in the Igbo-speaking areas of Sierra Leone and Nigeria. These were recorded on wax phonograph cylinders and included samples of speech, songs, stories and musical instruments. Mbanefo explained that translating and distributing these recordings can create possibilities for repurposing the audio and enabling greater access. 

“This process has challenged everything I thought I knew about my culture,” she said. “These archives provide insight into what life was like then… access [to them] is so important.”

N. W. Thomas, British anthropologist. Photo Credit: Re:Entanglements.

Restitution of the archive

An important theme to emerge from this panel discussion was about the affordances of archives and whether their restitution to parts of West Africa as physical objects is as important as other forms of digital access. For example, in her work reconstructing an Olukun pot, a shrine vessel collected in Benin City in 1909, Carmen Vida explains that the essence and intangibility of culture is embodied over the materiality of the object itself. 

“We have to think about whether the emphasis on the materiality of repatriation is not in itself a Western colonial attitude toward culture,” she said. 

Professor Basu elaborated on this point by explaining that community value in the places from which these objects originate can take different forms today, including through affective engagement. He argues that the most powerful material in terms of cultural heritage value in the archive is sound recordings, followed by photographs and the physical objects themselves.

“That isn’t to say [objects] don’t have value, but it complicates the notion that the object is more valuable than the recording or photograph. We can do a lot of restitution with what matters most to many people.”

Enabling community access

Andrews said that in her work with the young people, they continuously returned to the debate about what an archival exhibition should look like today, and whether it was possible to explain colonial history in its entirety.

“In the end, we settled with the fact that we could never provide those answers or control that. So it’s about gaining the ability to sit with that uncertainty,” she said. 

This sophisticated engagement with new voices and diverse communities serves to further these conversations for which there are no easy answers. New digital tools and other methods for engagement with local artists and communities, particularly in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, will better inform the discussion and provide potential solutions for restitution in its various forms.

“It’s a collaborative thing to put [the objects] back into their context,” said Mbanefo. “Someone who knows what they mean and how special they are … puts it in the right perspective.”

Professor Basu says it’s also important to acknowledge the steps that have been taken in partnership with institutions including the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the British Library Sound Archive, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the UK National Archives.

“Part of the objective is to take a case study and show what one can do with it as a model for what we should be doing with all collections,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge the willingness of these institutions to open themselves to this. It’s a risky endeavour.” 

“An archive by other means” is the culmination of the Art Assassins’ year-long project working with artists Onyeka Igwe and Rosa Johan Uddoh, “Entanglements: Who makes history?” 

Visit the Re:Entanglements website for regular updates including materials and other information relating to the culture and heritage of Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

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