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Rethinking relationships Project

Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African Collections is a project that develops new practice around the Kenyan and Nigerian collections at the Horniman, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge and the World Museum in Liverpool. 

The project is working with heritage professionals, community members, researchers, artists and other stakeholders in Kenya, Nigeria and the UK to develop thinking about the future of the collections.

Supporting the thinking is a research process that involves stakeholders collaboratively developing questions about the collections and their provenance – how they came to be in each museum’s collection – that includes linking the objects to historical events and key moments in the history of collecting.

The project will be facilitating visits by stakeholders to see each museum’s collections, as well as holding workshops in all three countries as a basis for equitable exchange that can contribute to the future care of the collections.

The project has already begun to engage with issues of representation in the collections, identifying information that need updating and opening possibilities for stakeholders to work directly with the collections.

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Kenyan Community Researcher experience

Margaret Akinyi Otieno, Anthropologist, Research Scientist and Community Researcher, shares her experience of researching the collections as part of the Rethinking Relationships project.

My name is Margaret Akinyi Otieno from Kenya. I am an Anthropologist by profession and currently work at the National Museums of Kenya as a research scientist.

I got to know about the Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust in African Collections project through a colleague who is also part of another interesting project, the International Inventories Programme. The programme is an international database project that investigates a corpus of Kenyan objects held in cultural institutions across the globe.

Having shared previous conversations around the need to repatriate most, if not all, of African objects that were looted, and having followed the IIP conversations in Kenya, he knew for sure that I was going to be interested in this project. Indeed, I have loved being part of this project’s community researchers.

Seeing many cultural objects that tell very rich stories, but some of which aren’t told as should, gave me the drive to dig deeper and find out more.

Who made them and what were the processes involved? Who used them and for what?

What were the likely circumstance of their acquisition, and if they are still available and of use in the local communities?

Museums are institutions whose main role is the preservation of culture.

They play a very vital role in enriching the educational process by exposing the public to their history in a positive way; assisting future generations to understand and appreciate their history and culture, and take pride in the achievements of their forebearers.

It is therefore important that they have their records right, and tell the actual or near-real stories of the cultural objects as known and appreciated by the communities they hold meaning to.

I’m glad that the four museums in this project – the Horniman, Pitt Rivers, Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (MAA) and World Museum, Liverpool – identified the gaps with these objects and reached out to community researchers through this project. We hope that what we collected during the research period will be able to build on what these museums have, and the objects will have their stories told.

As interesting as it was building the information on these objects, some of us experienced a special kind of sadness; one that comes with the knowledge that very few people within our circle are able to identify and tell more about the objects shared.

Sadder still is the fact that most of these objects are missing in our local museums.

I know we are having the conversation around the repatriation of some of our African collections, especially those that are sacred and whose circumstance of acquisition is questionable, but I’d love it even more if we were to have an online platform where these objects can be shared and can be accessed by anyone at any time.

This way, for instance, my mum who had forgotten about our ligisa (traditional luo headdress for women) will be able to see it and remember the stories surrounding it: stories that she would definitely share with us and her grandchildren thus helping in preserving our culture.

The National Museums of Kenya has, for instance, partnered with Google Arts and Culture to showcase a digital exhibition, Utamaduni wetu: Meet the people of Kenya through which so much about the diverse Kenyan culture is showcased and can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.

I want to thank the developers of the research toolkit, an invaluable tool that assisted us in navigating through the online collections from the four museums with clear guiding research questions. The only main challenge was building on to the circumstance of acquisition for those objects with missing information on the collectors and year of acquisition.

In conclusion, I’d wish to laud the initiators of this project for working towards ensuring that museum objects tell the stories that they ought to tell, even to communities who know nothing or very little of these diverse cultures. My main interest, however, is if we can all find a way in which these objects will be able to tell these stories to an audience to which they hold meaning.

It would have been more fulfilling if we had an opportunity to go to the field and meet up with informed respondents and cultural custodians. I believe that much more would have been captured but I guess the Covid-19 pandemic came along and made this an impossibility. I have learnt a lot and I have appreciated the richness of our Kenyan cultures. Asante sana JC Niala and the team!

Read more about the Rethinking Relationships project which is working with heritage professionals, community members, researchers, artists and other stakeholders in Kenya, Nigeria and the UK to develop thinking about the future of the collections.

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Appreciating Community Knowledge

Museums are institutions whose main role is the preservation of culture.

They play a very vital role in enriching the educational process by exposing the public to their history in a positive way; assisting future generations to understand and appreciate their history and culture, and take pride in the achievements of their forebearers.

It is therefore important that they have their records right, and tell the actual or near-real stories of the cultural objects as known and appreciated by the communities they hold meaning to.

I’m glad that the four museums in this project – the Horniman, Pitt Rivers, Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (MAA) and World Museum, Liverpool – identified the gaps with these objects and reached out to community researchers through this project. We hope that what we collected during the research period will be able to build on what these museums have, and the objects will have their stories told.

As interesting as it was building the information on these objects, some of us experienced a special kind of sadness; one that comes with the knowledge that very few people within our circle are able to identify and tell more about the objects shared.

Sadder still is the fact that most of these objects are missing in our local museums.

I know we are having the conversation around the repatriation of some of our African collections, especially those that are sacred and whose circumstance of acquisition is questionable, but I’d love it even more if we were to have an online platform where these objects can be shared and can be accessed by anyone at any time.

This way, for instance, my mum who had forgotten about our ligisa (traditional luo headdress for women) will be able to see it and remember the stories surrounding it: stories that she would definitely share with us and her grandchildren thus helping in preserving our culture.

The National Museums of Kenya has, for instance, partnered with Google Arts and Culture to showcase a digital exhibition, Utamaduni wetu: Meet the people of Kenya through which so much about the diverse Kenyan culture is showcased and can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.

I want to thank the developers of the research toolkit, an invaluable tool that assisted us in navigating through the online collections from the four museums with clear guiding research questions. The only main challenge was building on to the circumstance of acquisition for those objects with missing information on the collectors and year of acquisition.

In conclusion, I’d wish to laud the initiators of this project for working towards ensuring that museum objects tell the stories that they ought to tell, even to communities who know nothing or very little of these diverse cultures. My main interest, however, is if we can all find a way in which these objects will be able to tell these stories to an audience to which they hold meaning.

It would have been more fulfilling if we had an opportunity to go to the field and meet up with informed respondents and cultural custodians. I believe that much more would have been captured but I guess the Covid-19 pandemic came along and made this an impossibility. I have learnt a lot and I have appreciated the richness of our Kenyan cultures. Asante sana JC Niala and the team!

Read more about the Rethinking Relationships project which is working with heritage professionals, community members, researchers, artists and other stakeholders in Kenya, Nigeria and the UK to develop thinking about the future of the collections.

Juma Ondeng’ – Community Researcher, Kenya

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Kenyan Community Researchers

A Zoom research meeting with JC and some of the community researchers in Kenya.

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Kenya Community Research

JC Niala tells us how the Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African Collections project has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges faced for museums and the Kenyan community.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunities to engage in person with community members from Kenya were curtailed.

JC Niala is the African Collections Researcher at the Horniman, coordinating the project Rethinking Relationships. JC was meant to travel to Kenya in the spring of 2020 to participate in a series of workshops entitled Object Movement Dialogues with project partners, International Inventories Programme (IIP), people from the National Museums of Kenya, and community members from across the country. The workshops were meant to be an exchange.

JC had planned to share information about the collections held across four museums in the UK:

  • Horniman Museums and Gardens
  • Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge
  • Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford
  • World Museum, Liverpool

She was also going to listen to and engage with participant’s thoughts on what they felt the futures of the collections should be. This became impossible due to the pandemic.

Despite the challenges presented by coronavirus, JC was keen that the work on the Kenyan collections should continue, following a successful community visit from Maasai peoples from Kenya and Tanzania in February, to three of the four museums.

JC felt strongly that in order for stakeholders in Kenya to be able to consider the collections futures, they first had to have some knowledge about what the collections from Kenya were. There is still relatively little known about the objects in the collections and over 90% of the objects are not on display in the museums.

The challenges of the pandemic also meant that there were people in Kenya who were struggling, and it seemed like the project could be a way to offer some practical support.

Working with a decolonised methodology, JC wanted to understand the barriers community members face when trying to work with online collections.

Some of the challenges were local to Kenya, such as access to the internet.

Other barriers were to do with the ways in which online collections were set up in museums. Language was one such issue, whether museum terminology or culturally inappropriate terms.

Community members also felt that they needed guidance to understand how the museums worked. Others had never carried out research in a formal institution, and although they were keen to do so, wanted some training tools.

In order to facilitate the continuation of the work on the Kenyan collections, JC Niala and Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp (Deputy Keeper of Anthropology) collaboratively developed a toolkit with community researchers in Kenya. The toolkit contains information to help community researchers navigate the collections across the four museums involved in the project. This toolkit includes research guidance, explains museum terminology and contains videos from museum staff that supports their socially distanced entry into the museums.

JC worked with Juma Ondeng of IIP ( based in Kenya) to secure internet access for each of the researchers.

In July, a Zoom workshop including directors and staff from each of the museums as well as 18 community researchers from Kenya launched the new phase of the project.

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Video response to the African collections

Yvette Waweru created this video as a creative afrofuturist response to working with headrests in the collections from Kenyan pastoralists communities.

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Rethinking African Collections

Maasai necklace from collections at World Museum, Liverpool

There has been a lot of media attention around African collections held in museums around the world. Museums are finding different ways to respond to the ways in which these collections should be best cared for now and into the future. In November 2019, 4 U.K. Museums launched a new project called ‘Rethinking Relationships and building trust around African collections’ which is hosted at the Horniman Museums & Gardens in London. The 4 partner museums are:

  • Horniman Museum & Gardens – London
  • Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology – Cambridge
  • Pitt Rivers Museum – Oxford
  • World Museum – Liverpool

The project is funded by The Department for Media, Culture & Sport in the U.K.

In order to best think about the collections futures, the project began by focusing on the following points:

  • Building trust with the communities that the collections came from
  • Finding out more about the collections
  • Engaging community members in conversations about the collections and their futures

As Africa is a large and diverse continent with 54 countries (and 4 disputed territories) the project decided to begin with two countries – Kenya and Nigeria.

The relationship that each country has with the U.K. has some key historical differences. The West African coast (where Nigeria is located) has trading relationships with the U.K.that are over 200 years old. Kenya is on the East African coast with a relatively more recent trading relationship that is over a century old. This is just one of the features that is reflected in the collections across the museums.

The four museums in the project were also chosen for their differences in order to get a deeper understanding about the ways in which what sort of museum can affect the relationships that they have with different communities. It was also an opportunity for different types of museums to work together.

The Horniman is an independent museum . MAA in Cambridge & Pitt Rivers in Oxford are both university museums. World Museum, Liverpool is a national museum.