What do museums afford? What repertoires of action do they make possible? MAA is the lead partner in a 3-year AHRC-funded project being led by Paul Basu, Professor of Anthropology at SOAS University of London, who will be working with Nicholas Thomas and Chris Wingfield to investigate the latent possibilities of museum collections, curatorial interventions and innovative exhibition practices. More particularly, the project explores how museums can activate ethnographic archives and collections assembled in the colonial-era as catalysts for intercultural understanding, for recovery of lost histories, repairing past injustices, building relationships, exchanging knowledge and engaging creatively across social and cultural boundaries. Can such historical collections transcend the colonial contexts of their collection and be used as resources for decolonisation?
In pursuit of these objectives, the project engages in a programme of experimental museology, focused on a remarkable assemblage of objects, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, fieldnotes and publications that constitute the legacy of a series of anthropological surveys undertaken by Northcote Whitridge Thomas (1868-1936). Thomas was 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. In this capacity he conducted three anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria (1909-13) and one in Sierra Leone (1914-15). This endeavour was not considered a success by colonial governments at the time and Thomas’s collections and research materials were dispersed to various institutions, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which holds Thomas’s material culture collections and photographic prints.
Other project partners include the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the British Library, the National Archives and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as well as an increasing number of collaborating institutions in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Further information about the project, including project blog, can be found at http://re-entanglements.net.