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 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

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