Trip to London for a British Museum Symposium (Abiti Nelson, ITP 2013)

Written by Abiti Nelson (ITP 2013, Uganda), Curator of Ethnology, Uganda National Museum

It was an exciting opportunity for me to travel back to London from 5th – 10th March 2018. My purpose of travel was to participate in the British Museum symposium Exhibiting the Experience of Empire.  The symposium took place on 9th March, and we were two ITP fellows in panel discussions (myself and fellow ITP alumni Chithra Kallur from India, ITP 2017). The symposium participants were academics, professionals and the public debating on issues of exhibiting the experience of empires.

As I arrived on Sunday, I missed the winter snow that had ended on Saturday, however, the week in London was a wonderful experience.

In the symposium, there were various discussions ranging from histories of collections, the use of visual images, the role of agency in creating narratives of museum objects and pedagogies for museum to rethink exhibiting empire experiences. Many of the participants discussed the idea that ‘the past is now’, pointing out how some museums are struggling to confront the complexity of representing imperialism.  Drawing from the paper of Dr. Richard Drayton’s work on imperial propaganda in post-colonial heritage, he challenged heritage institutions in attempting to interrogate the past, while ignoring the present and future. I also learnt that representation of stories in the museum should be linked to the stories of the public today and such connections could potentially lead to decolonising narratives that have been neglected in the displays of the museums.

Panelist Abira Hussein talked about a project that connects the Somali community with the British Museum Africa collections, and tries to rethink about how we make museums spaces for the community.  The use of digital archives was made available to the Somali community as way of healing. The technological ways of displaying archive materials provides ways for engaging with the community in positive ways. I learnt a lot from the panel discussion, also from Edith Ojo about her work with Brighton Museum, retelling the narratives of aso oke textile (Yoruba) in Nigeria. Her discussion enabled me to understand the dialogue with communities that tells the other stories which are not found in museums and galleries.

The intriguing discussions were mainly on decolonising museums. Although this question has been discussed several times, it seems museums have stiffened their necks to the change. In the symposium, a surprising discussion waved towards radical thoughts that said, ‘use criminal strategies to adopt some form of required changes’. The limitations to the suggestion as discussed by participants were the questions of who owns the museums and at what level change can happen in the museum and what the terms of the conversation are.

Lastly, the symposium ended up with a public lecture by Professor Wayne Modest on Museums and the Materialisation of Refusal. The public lecture provided an opportunity to explore more discussion on the experience of exhibiting the empire from the narratives of missionaries, colonial officials and travellers, demonstrating evidence of violence. It was argued that exhibits of empire do not say what empire is by addressing issues of violence but rather portray romanticism.

During my time in London, I was excited to meet colleagues at the British Museum, Rebecca, Claire, Jessica, Jimmy, and colleagues of Africa, Oceania and the Americas including John Giblin. We had a wonderful reunion with ITPers Omar Nasser (ITP 2013, Palestine) and Chithra Kallur (ITP 2017, India).  We had great moments sharing past experiences, especially with Omar who studied in the UK like me, and reflecting on the ITP 2013. Although a lot has changed on the ITP summer programme, based on chatting with Chithra. I visited the Asahi Shimbun display in Room 3 on the Haitian Revolution on Monday 5th March in the afternoon hours. Some of my time was spent in the Library and Archives of Anthropology (AOA) Department.

The next day, Tuesday 6th March, I travelled to Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Museum holds Roscoe’s collection from Uganda. I was able to spent some time in the documentation centre, and although the university strike limited my ability to interact the staff of the museum, I managed to obtain permission to use the digital images from the museum about Uganda.

On Wednesday 7th March, I travelled to Norwich and met my former colleague Rosalie Hans writing her final thesis on Community Museums in East Africa. I had lunch in Norwich town at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. From there, I returned to London in the evening.

On Thursday, I returned to the British Museum and visited the current temporary exhibition Living with Gods. This exhibition explores the various ways in which humans have shared their sacred beliefs ranging from space, gods, and different religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and animism.  The exhibition accompanies a series on Radio 4 with the British Museum’s former Director Neil McGregor.

Upon visiting the Museum, I had coffee at the Elizabeth Court with ICOMOS-UNESCO Advisor Suzan Denya. Towards the lunch hour we joined together with ITPers at the BM canteen. My afternoon hours were spent at the Library of Anthropology.

My trip to London was fruitful – both reconnecting with ITP fellows and BM staff and making new friends during the symposium and continuing to build my network.

I would like to thank the BM ITP for fully sponsoring my trip. This enabled me to accomplish library research tasks and meet people for advice and more connections as well as attending the symposium. I look forward to be a committed ITP alumnus and sharing more experiences.

Abiti Nelson