Local Meanings for the Willoughby Collection

By Gase Kediseng, Khama III Memorial Museum

Even though I haven’t had the privilege of seeing the actual objects, I am intrigued by the craftsmanship displayed in the objects which spells excellence and perfection. Imagining that they did not have the luxury of specialised tools to enable them to work on the finer details of the objects still leaves me in awe.

As a modern Motswana who studied Botswana history, my understanding is that we were once a very poor country which later developed rapidly due to the discovery of diamonds and the production of beef, and made us one of the richest countries in Southern Africa. Nonetheless, nothing or very little is mentioned on how Batswana of the 19th century were industrious, let alone their love for the ‘finer things in life’. 

Looking back, I believe the discovery of diamonds somehow shifted our mindset from that of producers to a consuming nation. Diamonds brought with them the infrastructure, education, health and the jobs that gave us money to buy the stuff which we needed. We made it our way of life and became overly dependent. We shunned or forgot our way of survival – the bartering (goods exchange) system. This form of trading, I think, encouraged people or individuals to tap into their strengths and creativity to be able to produce the best they could in exchange for the stuff they needed, which I believe contributed to community building.

For me, I see this project as an eye opener. It should be able to give Batswana a gleam of hope that, yes, they can! It should be able to make us proud as a nation that our forefathers were creative and hard working. This will indeed dispel the fallacy that we had no past to boast of before the arrival of the colonisers; it will bring about the much-needed focus on our rich cultural heritage.

This project gives me a sense of pride and gratitude that even though the artefacts are kept in another country, they remain ours by virtue of them being produced by our forebears. It adds to the part of history that was forgotten and unknown to the new generation.

On our continued partnership with Brighton Museum: if this partnership could be geared towards assisting us build our capacity, it would go a long way in preparing us to handle loans of this nature in the long term. If our conservation standards cannot be at par with museums in developed countries, they should be basic at least. We should strive to be able to maintain our collections, and when we have achieved this, we will be able to say ‘we are ready’!

Post the COVID-19 total lockdown, which resulted in closing of borders, and presented a whole lot of uncertainties, we were left vulnerable as a nation. This forced some Batswana come up with initiatives for survival and even strongly lobbied for the support of locally produced stuff.

In conclusion, I see this project helping with some issues that our society is grappling to address today. It will also help us as we are forced to go through the ‘introspection phase’ as a nation.

As they say, understanding of your past equips you for the future.

This piece is taken from the forthcoming publication Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections? Initial Findings and Recommendations

Reconsidering the Narrative: Diana Powell-Cotton’s 1937 diary

In this blog Emma Watson discusses her project ‘Moments of exchange in colonial collections: the 1937 Diana Powell-Cotton Angola diaries and their legacy’, funded by the University of Sussex Junior Research Associate Scheme. Emma is currently studying a BA in English and Art History at the University of Sussex.

The Powell-Cotton Museum’s rich archive of primary sources provides the opportunity for unique and continued research into the provenance of their collection. Diana Powell-Cotton’s 1937 diary documenting her trip to Angola with her sister Antoinette is an invaluable primary source that contextualises both the Powell-Cotton collection and their type of collecting. It is an insight into the mindset of the sisters, accounting for their political, moral and ethical beliefs, and providing a purpose and intent for the trip. The final section of the diary, which prior to this project had not been transcribed, offers two pivotal examples which bring to the fore the complexities of not only the mindset which framed the trip but of the acquisition of the 1937 collection itself. 

The two moments in the diary which are documented in the most detail are the Efundula ceremony in Owangwe, and a trip to the mines during which the smelting of iron took place for the making of hoe blades. Whilst the accounts for these events are rich in detail, it is the circumstances under which they occurred that needs to be questioned. In the instance of the Efundula, there is a bank of written evidence that reveals that the sisters forced the Efundula ceremony. By ensuring that it took place before it was set to take place in the Owangwe community, various material elements of the ceremony were rushed or ‘improvised’, altering the integrity of this significant cultural event. Paying a similar disregard to the socio-cultural structures and order of life in Angolan communities, the trip to the mines was in direct defiance of the Evale chief who had ordered that ‘no forgers where to leave for the mines until after the feast at Onjiva’. The sisters disregard for this order is demonstrative not only of their attitude towards Angolan culture and political order but also of their absolute desire to record and document specific cultural events. 

The language throughout the diary emphasises that the anthropological mindset which provoked the trip was one which sought to ‘salvage’ an Angolan culture which was being ‘spoilt’ by colonial presence. The irony of such an attitude is accounted for in the sisters’ disregard for the very structures of the culture which they sought to document in a “preserved” and “natural” state. When considered in the wider context of salvage anthropology, these two deeply problematic moments shed light on not only the selectivity of Diana and Antoinette’s ethnographic recordings but also of the deep-rooted colonial power at hand. This power assumed dominance over the cultural practice of non-Western communities, detrimentally impacting not only the way these events were represented, which in turn influenced “knowledge” production, but also more importantly posing serious social and political risks for the members of the communities who were involved. 

During the course of my project the final section of the 1937 Angolan diary has been photographed and transcribed for the first time. In due course, these materials will be published in the Making African Connections Digital Archive. For contemporary research this diary is of great significance, contributing to an understanding of the context of the Powell-Cotton sisters 1937 trip. Reading the diary for both what is and what isn’t there will provide a framework for venturing into the discovery of new narratives. In doing this the voices of Angolan communities that have previously been silenced can be accounted for. 

Emma Watson, Junior Research Associate, University of Sussex

The provenance and meanings of nineteenth century objects: research in Botswana

In this blog JoAnn McGregor, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sussex and Principal Investigator of the Making African Connections project, discusses ongoing research in Botswana.

Nicola Stylianou (Post-Doctoral Research Asssociate) and I spent the last 10 days with our Botswana colleagues Scobie Lekhutile (Curator, Khama III Memorial Museum) and Winani Thebele (Chief Ethnologist, Botswana National Museum) researching the meanings of the nineteenth century artefacts donated to Brighton Museum by the LMS missionary Charles Willoughby. The objects were collected between 1893 and 1898 while Willoughby was based in Botswana at Old Palapye where he worked closely with Khama III and a network of elite Christanised Tswana evangelists. We now have fantastic images of the objects which formed the basis of our investigations (you can see them on www.makingafricancollections.org). Willoughby also took photos, which we also hope to digitize, which seem to record a remarkably different world from that of the objects. His ‘curiosities’ comprised hand-worked leather skirts and cloaks, beadwork, spears, plus everyday household items crafted from wood, reeds, grass and horn. But in his photos, women wore ankle-length Victorian clothing even for everyday tasks like carrying water, thatching or pounding grain, and there are images of the church, trading stores and advancing railway, as well as portraits of evangelists and members of the royal family. They show Khama’s men departing for war in Matabeleland were wearing trousers, hats and carrying guns rather than clad in leather and armed with the bows, arrows and spears of the collection.

Scobie Lekhutile interviewing Gaolhuha Ogopotse
Scobie Lekhutile interviewing Gaolhuha Ogopotse

We had so many questions: What did this collection mean to people in Central Botswana today? Would old people remember using such objects themselves? Had their parents and grandparents kept and talked about such things? What did people think should happen to these objects? How was Willoughby remembered? Could we get any closer to the circumstances of Willoughby’s collecting? Would we be able to find descendants of his mentor, a certain Ramashoana?

Follow this blog to find out! We are still digesting our findings. But we now have a wealth of information derived from our Botswanan colleagues’ historical insight, plus the huge network of Scobie’s contacts in Serowe – including elders from the church and the Museum Board plus local craftspeople.

The Brighton Museum team are arriving in Serowe today to continue the research, and to do the nitty gritty background work necessary for getting the objects to Botswana, measuring up cabinets and the like. They’ll be discussing storylines for exhibitions in both Botswana and Brighton, and they’ll also do some contemporary collecting with Khama III colleagues.

Scobie Lekhutile interviewing Ookeditse Pono
Scobie Lekhutile interviewing Ookeditse Pono

Our research so far has been productive and fascinating but also raises challenges: How to select just some of the objects to go to Botswana and for only short-term loan, when our meetings to rule objects out were ruling everything in! The project budget cannot pay for the whole collection to go to Botswana. Some people were telling us this is where all the objects belong. But Khama III have been discussing the creative energy needed to generate interest and storylines that make the objects relevant to broad Botswanan publics today. Many younger people did not see them as part of Tswana history and heritage, but rather associated them with the San. Moreover Willoughby is absent from the public domain in Botswana, and most people have never heard of him. Cultivating interest in local history is rendered more difficult because of its disappearance from Botswana school curricula, and decline at university level too. Regional museums in Botswana struggle against multiple constraints – lack of interest from the public and a dearth of funding together with cuts that stifle initiative and threaten their future existence. The short term nature and limited budget of a project such as this can provide a burst of activity, but it does not provide long-term investment. These are some of the realities and complexities of ‘decolonizing’ colonial-era collections that the project aimed to investigate and that we will continue to debate here.

12 August 2019

Statement of Values, Principles, and Approaches

I’m James, I’m a co-investigator on Making African Connections, and I run the digital component of the project. This involved much more than running a website. It is it imaging, cataloguing, metadata processing, rights management, and digital preservation, all informed by the intellectual and ethical agendas of the project, which span Geography, Museum Studies, Digital Humanities, and beyond.

So it seems vital to me that we don’t just put things online, but that we show our working. That we don’t make claims to innovation without making clear our debts. That we situate the experience of our users within the experience of producing the website. That – as far as possible – we make our thinking, preoccupations, and prejudices knowable to anyone who stumbles across the remnants of our labour 5, 10, 15, 20 years in the future.

So this week we publish our ‘Statement of Values, Principles, and Approaches‘, a document intended the frame the design, maintenance, and delivery of the Making African Connections Digital Archive. This is a live document. We encourage you to tell us (here, via email, on Twitter) what we’re doing wrong, what we could do better, and where we are getting it right. We include a list of references, most of which are things that have framed my thinking over recent years and months. We plan to keep this updated as we come across new work that advances our thinking. And we’re always looking for suggestions. So do get in touch if you have ideas.

Heritage in Southern Africa: debating decolonizing agendas

SAC Seminar: JoAnn Mcgregor, Scobie Lekhutile, Napandulwe Shiweda, Winani Thebele

One of the greatest pleasures in working on this project, and a cornerstone in the project’s methodology, is working with colleagues from Africa.  We were delighted when our partners from Namibia and Botswana, who were visiting us for the project launch, agreed to contribute to a Sussex Africa Centre Seminar.  The topic was ‘Heritage in Southern Africa: debating decolonizing agendas’. 

Dr Napandulwe Shiweda (University of Namibia) began the session offering her reflections on monuments and heritage in Namibia, drawing our attention to some exciting projects taking place.  She spoke of Namibia as a young country where, in the past, ethnic differences had been exploited.  Heritage is therefore seen in the context of a wider nation building project and cultural policy has been developed around the concept of ‘Unity in Diversity.’  One of the projects Napandulwe highlighted is Africa Accessioned which seeks to make a list of all relevant collections from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia held in Germany, Finland, Sweden and the UK.  This work is not only important in highlighting objects for repatriation but also encourages dialogue and an understanding of both the context the objects were made in and the context they were collected in that can be used to enrich our understanding of the artefacts.

Winani Thebele
Winani Thebele, National Museums of Botswana

Winani Thebele (National Museums of Botswana) also addressed the context in which objects were collected.  She spoke about how much material had been removed from Botswana to Europe and South Africa but emphasised that this was part of a wider global process. Winani criticised UNESCO and ICOM for adopting a narrative of ‘shared heritage’ as a way of taking the heat out of the repatriation debate and questioned whether African objects held in storage in UK museums really constitute a ‘shared heritage’.  In addition, she raised the issue of the effect the lack of historical artefacts had had in Botswana and its impact on the development of their national museum.

Finally, Scobie Lekhutile (Khama III Memorial Museum) spoke about how the Khama III memorial museum had developed in Serowe, Botswana.  The museum was founded in the 1980s by volunteers who felt there were a lack of historical resources in the local area and nowhere to store recorded information.  He spoke about the important work the museum had done collecting material culture and recording its use at a time of rapid change in Botswana.  However, he also emphasised how the museum had been affected by changes in international development priorities; at one stage benefitting from a move towards cultural rather than infrastructural projects, then losing out as funding was redirected towards other countries in the region.  He ended on an upbeat note by saying that a small museum had enormous potential as a result of the commitment of its volunteers and its history of activism. 

Issues of provenance, context, unequal relationships, potential repatriation and sharing are themes we will be addressing throughout the project, The seminar was extremely popular, standing room only.  Staff and students from Sussex and a smattering of Museum Studies students from Brighton University were all very keen to hear speakers from Africa and Prof. JoAnn McGregor (chair) struggled to bring the discussion to a close.  This topic is obviously of great interest and there is a thirst for voices from outside UK to be heard on these issues. 

Dr Nicola Stylianou, University of Sussex

And we’re off!

Suchi Chatterjee (researcher, Brighton and Hove Black History) and Scobie Lekhuthile (curator, Khama III Memorial Museum) discussing the project.
Suchi Chatterjee (researcher, Brighton and Hove Black History) and Scobie Lekhuthile (curator, Khama III Memorial Museum) discussing the project.

Last week was the first time that everybody working on the Making African Connections project was in the same room together. This was a very exciting moment for us and was no small feat, people travelled from Namibia, Botswana, Sudan and all across the UK to attend our first project workshop. We began by discussing the project together and then broke into three groups to discuss the three museum collections of African objects that are now in Kent and Sussex.

The first working group was discussing a collection of Batswana artefacts donated to Brighton museum by Revd Willoughby, a missionary. Staff at the museum will be working with researcher Winani Thebele (Botswana National Museums) and curator Scobie Lekhuthile (Khama III Memorial Museum) as well Tshepo Skwambane (DCES) and Suchi Chatterjee and Bert Williams (Brighton and Hove Black History). The second case study focuses on a large collection of objects from South West Angola that are held at the Powell-Cotton Museum and were acquired in the 1930s. The objects are mainly Kwanyama and this part of the project has, as its advisor, an expert in Kwanyama history, Napandulwe Shiweda (University of Namibia). Finally, the project will consider Sudanese objects held at the Royal Engineers Museum. Research for this part of the project is being conducted by Fergus Nicoll, Reem al Hilou (Shams AlAseel Charitable Initiative) and Osman Nusairi (intellectual).

The aim of the workshop was to decide together what the priorities for the project were. We will begin digitising objects for our online archive in April so we need to know which objects we want to work on first as some of the collections are very large. It will only be possible to create online records for a selection of objects.

Before the workshop on Wednesday we had arranged for all the participants to visit the relevant galleries and see objects in storage. This had lead to some interesting and difficult conversations that we were able to build on during the workshop. Perhaps the clearest thing to come out of the meeting was the sheer amount of work to be done to fully research these collections and to understand their potential to connect to audiences and each other.

Dr Nicola Stylianou, University of Sussex