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In Process: Decolonizing MOA’s African Collections + Displays

Babban Riga, Kano (Nigeria), before 1910. MOA Collection Cb81. Photo by Alina Ilyasova. Today as in the past, Babban Rigas are usually worn at special events such as naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals and official ceremonies.

Decolonizing the African Collections and Displays at the Museum of Anthropology, or DAC-MOA as we refer to it internally, is a two-year UBC-funded project under the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience. The program stems from a key priority identified in UBC’s new strategic plan, “Shaping UBC’s Next Century,” to foster “innovative pilot projects that would broaden access to, and enhance, undergraduate research experiences.”

The collections of African provenance at MOA—including Egyptian, as well as items related to the African diasporas in the Caribbean and in Central and South America—total about 5,000 objects. Over the years, these collections have steadily grown, mainly by donations—starting with the initial 12 African items (from Somalia, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and West Africa) in MOA’s 1927 founding collection donated by Frank Burnett. Many of these objects arrived at MOA poorly documented, and this lack of knowledge became reflected in our displays and in the Museum’s online catalogue, MOA CAT. As a result, the principal ways we present our African objects to the public became problematic at many levels.

L–R: David Morton (UBC History), John Michael Koffi (Africa Awareness Initiative) and Nuno Porto. Photo by Kristi Fuoco.

While the current installation in MOA’s Multiversity Galleries, which opened in 2010, was based on the collective work of MOA Curators and African scholars, much work still needs to be done, as MOA was using outdated cultural classifications and names for African culture areas. The descriptions for our objects are often devoid of proper historical and cultural context, being outdated, old-fashioned and inaccurate.

Since 2015, a team of MOA research volunteers and I have been focusing on reclassifying the African collections, adding cultural affiliations, nationalities, designations in African languages and bibliographic references (read one example of their work here). Inspired by the work of this pioneering group of research volunteers, DAC-MOA was formed in 2019 by UBC-wide partnerships with David Morton (professor, UBC History), John Michael Koffi (student; president, UBC Africa Awareness Initiative), Savannah Sutherland (student; executive member, UBC Black Students Union) and Adam Rudder (instructor, UBC African Studies; co-chair, Hogan’s Alley Society).

L–R: Containers for wine: MOA Collection K2.296 a-b, by Amoin Eku Aya, Baule (Ivory Coast), before 1972; K2.241 a-b, maker unrecorded, possibly Baule (Ivory Coast), before 1970; K2.297 a-b, by Amoin Eku Aya, Baule (Ivory Coast), before 1972; Container for water: MOA Collection K2.295 a-b, by Amoin Eku Aya, Baule (Ivory Coast), before 1972. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

Our main goal became to contribute towards the “decolonization” of academic, pedagogical and museum practices. By “decolonization” we mean a critical attitude towards existing forms of classification and description of museum items, and a permanent quest for inclusive alternatives that incorporate African local knowledges and perspectives. This work is part of the notion of “multiversity” which was coined by Uganda’s Paulo Wangoola and India’s Claude Alvares and has guided the organization of the displays of the permanent collections in the Multiversity Galleries.

As part of this effort, we have been exploring the possibilities of a community-driven research environment based on mutual respect and support, the recognition of the value of cultural knowledge, and the principles of diversity, inclusivity and engagement. Reclassification of African collections is critical to this work since it is the basis upon which all related research, acquisitions policy, and exhibitions and public programs is built. Students are at the core of this work, by making public a contemporary and unprejudiced view of Africa and the African diasporas, first and foremost in the Museum’s cataloguing system for these collections, thereby creating the potential to transform the museum displays and other forms of engagement with the public.

L–R: Abigail White (B.A., Honours History with International Relations); Saleh Ismail (B.A. Political Science, Minor in African Studies); Diana Kamau (B.A. with a Double Major in English Literature and Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice Studies), during a weekly team session. Photo by Paul H. Joseph/UBC Brand & Marketing.

This two-year project (September 2019 – August 2021) will hire eight undergraduate students each term, on the basis of their demonstrated commitment to community engagement and their record of involvement with African Studies-related courses at UBC. Students are encouraged to develop an object-centred research project and to build their own research networks, including museum professionals and academic experts in Africa and elsewhere, as well as community knowledge holders, who sometimes may be acquaintances or members of their own families. For some, as one researcher from our first cohort put it, “This is a process of sharing the knowledge that I have learned about myself.” For others, it is a form of relating to their heritage and of connecting perspectives gained from the research process with their own academic work, in a more palpable, less abstract format. For all of us, the working process has contributed to realizing the complexity and richness of the many relations between people that objects reactivate time and time again, helping us to understand our histories and to face our challenges in present times.