Making the Museum

 

 

Project dates: 2024-2027

 

Lieutenant-General Pitt-Rivers did not make the museum in Oxford that bears his name, or the objects within it. 

The real makers of the Pitt Rivers Museum lived outside its walls where they were actively engaged in shaping their own lives within local cultural traditions through the artefacts they actively made and used.

Within the databases of the Pitt Rivers Museum there are more than 12,000 records with named makers from across the globe and over 20,000 photographs with identified people in them. These are the people who have made the museum, through their creative energy and skill.

And yet makers and subjects have often been silenced within the Museum's displays, labels, catalogues and exhibitions, which have historically focused on collectors, cultures, and curators.

Making the Museum is the first major research project in an ethnographic museum to investigate maker identities and agencies across the breadth of its collections.  Through detailed analysis of the Museum’s database, associated documentation, objects and archives, it will also pioneer a series of maker research fellowships that will transform our understanding of the knowledge, skills, and cosmologies embedded in objects, as well as their continuing power for people today.

Principal Investigator: Dr Chris Morton

Chris is Deputy Director and Head of Curatorial, Research and Teaching at the Pitt Rivers Museum, as well as Associate Professor at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Linacre College. Chris is an anthropologist and historian who has carried out fieldwork in Botswana and has published extensively on photographic histories and museum collections, especially relating to Africa and Australia.

Co-Investigator: Prof Chris Gosden

Chris is Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford and Keble College, Oxford, as well as a Trustee of the British Museum. Chris has extensively published on the archaeology of Britain, Europe and the Pacific, and has investigated questions of identity, landscape, material culture and the agency of the material world. He previously led two pioneering research projects at the Pitt Rivers Museum, The Relational Museum and The Other Within, which investigated collector networks and the Museum's English collections respectively.

 

Co-Investigator: Dr Marenka Thompson-Odlum

Marenka is Research Curator (Critical Perspectives) at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Her doctoral research at the University of Glasgow explored that city's role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade through its museum collections.  At the Pitt Rivers Museum, Marenka leads on decolonisation and critical thinking work in relation to the Museum's displays, texts, and collections. Marenka is also leading an ArtFund project to commission new objects for the collections and build new relationships with indigenous communities.

 

Project Researcher: Dr Beth Hodgett

Beth was formerly an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Award student at Birbeck, University of London and the Pitt Rivers Museum. Beth’s doctoral research investigated the photographic archive of archaeologist O.G.S. Crawford (1886–1957). Beth has a background in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology from the University of Oxford and also has interests in fine art and photography. Beth has completed several museum placements, at the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities and Social Research, during which she co-organised a graduate conference.

 

Portrait of Becky Martin

Research Project Officer: Dr Becky Martin

Becky has a background in the History of Science and Medicine. Her doctoral work explored the role of anatomical models in nineteenth-century medical teaching, focussing specifically on the intersection of their use and visual development with ideas around racial hierarchy. As a Caird Fellow at the National Maritime Museum, she led community engaged research work uncovering histories of individuals previously hidden or forgotten within collections. In her recent projects she has investigated the photographic record of the 1872-76 HMS Challenger Expedition, the colonial history of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the development of healthcare systems in colonial Nigeria.

 

History is important, but only to the extent that it helps us shape the present and future in ways that engage the greatest number to help rethink and reshape colonial histories and contemporary cultural identities in the healthiest possible way in the future. By building on the notion that the ethnographic museum is a “community” of agentive objects, Making the Museum will build on recent work in the social sciences to decentre Western networks and to refocus research attention on the submerged histories of the individuals and communities who made the collections.

Our project seeks to understand two interrelated concepts of making the museum: firstly, an understanding of objects as creations, as extensions of a maker’s agency, and secondly that the PRM’s dense displays are an assemblage of such agentive objects, that have affective resonances for those who encounter them. Bringing these two key concepts of making the museum together in the same conversation lies at the heart of the project and its outputs, which may have far-reaching impacts on future museum curation and interpretation.

Seeing historical and colonial collections as the products of makers rather than the assemblages of takers will bring a fresh and much needed new methodological approach to the ethnographic museum as it looks to its collections to shape its future.

 

rs102149 prm1998 341 27 2

The Zande craftsman Kisanga carving a stool with an adze.

Photograph by E. E. Evans-Pritchard c1927 [1998.341.27.2]

 

 

One of my chief informants, Kisanga, was a skilled woodcarver, one of the finest carvers in the whole kingdom of Gbudwe.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937: 66).

 

Our research questions:

  • What is the extent, distribution, and nature of maker/subject data in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s database?

  • From what parts of the world or collections are such data richer, where less so, and what does this say about historical attitudes to maker/subject identities?

  • What time periods are these data on identities associated with, and what might this say about collecting and curating patterns over time?

  • What is the potential for recovering maker/subject identities that have been submerged in the past, due to biases in documentation and collection practices, for instance by using archival sources or published material, as well as oral history and local sources of information?

  • What notable maker/subject identities and stories can be told in association with the data that already exists, and how might this shift our understanding of the perceived value of objects/archives as they move between different contexts, for instance between private collections and the scientific space of the ethnographic museum?

  • if such identities appear to have been suppressed in certain historical periods of collection, or from certain parts of the world, what might that tell us about how the identity/agency of makers has been conceptualised in Western museology?

These data and archive-driven questions will be complemented by more visual/ material and collaborative questions based on a series of maker fellowships that will extend the project's findings and lead our public engagement programme:

  • To what extent and in what ways might museum objects/archives be considered as extending the agency of their makers/subjects?
  • Is the concept of object agency only applicable in situations where objects were intended to enact such affects, or can it be traced in responses by members of those communities when they engage with objects held in museums (Cornejo González 2019)?
  • Do images of important objects or interactive digital 3D models of objects also have the power to produce affective responses in indigenous contexts and thereby, potentially, mediate object agency?
  • How can such agency be traced in the object/archive’s biography both before and since acquisition by the museum?
  • Can research into the named identities of makers/subjects in such a museum collection help us understand the way in which maker agency has been used by collectors and curators over time?

  • What hidden histories, such as those of material exploitation, colonial experiences, environmental and economic change, might material analysis of objects bring to the surface as ‘the material bearers of collective memory’ (Ferme 2001: 9), and which are inscribed by makers/subjects in objects and images?

  • What can close material analysis of objects tell us about their makers that is not currently part of the narrative around them? Are certain skills, age, gender, life histories, and other stories about an object’s maker embedded in the way objects are made that can be read through new material ‘readings’ of the object?

  • How might a methodological approach to the museum as a community of agentive objects, a collection that consists of the material extensions of maker/subject agency on those who encounter it, transform our understanding of the ethnographic museum in the future?

  • Can notions of maker agency be productively extended to the affectivity of objects on non-indigenous audiences, for instance local audiences to the Pitt Rivers Museum?
Rawz Campbell

Rawz

Music Maker Fellow 2024

Rawz is an MC and Poet hailing from Oxford with deep interests in the connections between historical music makers and the resonance of their music for local communities today. He first discovered lyric writing in his early teens and found it an essential way to channel his emotions and organise his thoughts through difficult times growing up in one of the UK’s most deprived areas. Since then, Rawz has performed live all over Europe both as a solo artist and with the Inner Peace Records collective and Urban Music Foundation. His music shares his exploration of our interconnected worlds and his responses to them, promoting outer change and advancement through inner reflection and positive action. Rawz has held creative fellowships at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities as well as St John's College, Oxford.

Xolile Madinda

X

Music Maker Fellow 2024

Xolile (‘X) Madinda is a hip-hop artist, social activist, community educator and entrepreneur based in Grahamstown-Makhanda in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. X – together with Mxolisi Bodla (aka Biz) – is one of the founding members of Defboyz, one of the most influential hip hop groups in the Eastern Cape. Biz and X combine hip hop, poetry, and beats with social messages and community activism to forge social cohesion. X is also one of the founding members of the Youth Art group Fingo Revolutionary Movement and Fingo Festival, a week-long annual event now in its ninth year and part of the National Arts Festival. X programmes and organizes an ambitious roster of artists and speakers, blending cutting-edge South African DJs, beats, and rhymes with discussions, live art, lectures, and children’s activities. X is also the founder and CEO of Around Hip Hop and The Black Power Station, a pioneering art space within the re-emerging industrial area of Grahamstown-Makhanda.

X brings extensive experience of working with South African music archives, especially the International Library of African Music (ILAM) at Rhodes University, and the McIntire Dept of Music at the University of Virginia.