Curious About the Congo? The Study’s the Place to Be

On 11th September 2015 Manchester Museum opens it’s dynamic new space The Study. The Study will provide stimulating surroundings and resources for users ranging from hobbyists to academics to explore and be inspired by the museum’s encyclopaedic collections. Part of this new space is a temporary exhibition gallery.

The Study

The inaugural exhibition for The Study’s gallery is The Phantoms of Congo River: Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo. Nyaba is an internationally renowned photographer and previously exhibited work in Manchester at Manchester Art Gallery in 2012 during the season of West African art called We Face Forward. This exhibition is Nyaba’s response to Joseph Conrad’s infamous 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. The text raises challenging questions about 19th century colonialism and racism in Africa, questions that Nyaba confronts in his work.  The curiosity and critique embedded in Nyaba’s work is the kind of new thinking The Study aims to facilitate and encourage.

Phantoms-of-the-Congo-River1-658x470

On display will be 13 of Nyaba’s most powerful prints accompanied by stunning objects from the Living Culture’s collection. You’ll be able to peruse the full series of prints in Nyaba’s catalogue which will be publicly available in the Discover area of The Study. We’ll also have copies of Heart of Darkness in the Share area. From 11th September onwards there’ll be an exciting series of events across The Study, including those related to the Congo, so keep up to date at the Manchester Museum website (http://bit.ly/1AuFKXTand The Study Twitter feed (http://bit.ly/1INaiY2).

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All Good Dogs go to Manchester Museum

Last Wednesday Breed: The British and their Dogs finally opened. All those who attended, both canine and human, were captivated by the fascinating stories, wonderful objects and stunning graphics. Dog breeders from the Manchester Dog Show Society and beyond very kindly brought a selection of pedigree show dogs to meet visitors in the flesh. Rocky the bulldog was the star of the show winning the affection of the majority of visitors with his loveable personality.

Borzoi at the opening of Breed.

However, visitors were equally as intrigued and pleased to meet the other five breeds including Pekingese, borzoi, and the final three focus breeds I’ve yet to blog about, namely the Irish wolfhound, collie and bloodhound. These three breeds have enthralling histories associated with nationalism, colonialism, industrialisation and criminology! They typify and illuminate changes in British society over the past two centuries just as the Pekingese, borzoi and bulldog do.

Breed: The British and their Dogs. Manchester Museum. The University of Manchester. 2012.

If you missed the opening do come along to the Museum this Saturday as the dogs and their owners will be back. They’ll also be several other dog orientated events going on throughout the day so don’t miss out.

Cultural Contumacy?

Over the past several days the media has been awash with theories which claim to identify the cause of the recent English riots. One of the most controversial theories, as confidentially articulated  by historian David Starkey, is that so-called Black culture is to blame. Starkey’s comments have reignited a national debate on the relationship between race and culture.

19th century anthropologists viewed culture as a static phenomenon attributed to particular racial groups. Crude notions of cultural sophistication were developed which seemingly proved the superiority of European culture. Objects like those in the Living Cultures collection were used to demonstrate the assumed primitive nature of non-European cultures, particularly those in Africa. This cultural primitivism was believed to have caused moral impoverishment, the jingoistic remedy for which was colonial intervention.

British officers meeting with the Sobo people, Nigeria, Africa, late 19th century. The Living Cultures collection, the Manchester Museum.

Shockingly the idea that African and Black culture is somehow negative is still perpetuated. So too is the absurd notion that culture is inextricably linked with race and cannot transcend it. Over several decades individuals, communities and organisations, such as the Manchester Museum, have worked tirelessly to confront and extinguish these myths.

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

Benin, Britain and Belonging

Last week I was lucky enough to hear Kokie Agbontaen-Eghafona, University of Benin, deliver a very interesting paper on public opinion in Benin to the return of Benin objects at the University of Manchester’s Museums and Restition conference. For those of you unfamiliar with the contentions associated with Benin collections the video below will illuminate you.

Only several days before the conference I was teaching a  group of Open University students about these very contentions, and the history of the objects we have here in the Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection which were taken in 1897. Some of these objects are on display whilst others are used in teaching sessions or community engagement during which the complexity and importance of Benin and British colonial interference is discussed and debated.

It is now argued that such contentious collections as those of Benin can be used by museums in the UK to engage with an increasingly multicultural audience, promote the sophistocation of Benin culture and deal with the uncomfrotable reality of British imperialism. Those who seek their return argue that by retaining such material we are prolonging a legacy of injustice that began in 1897 and preventing the people of Benin from exerting their cultural rights and gaining access to their history. 

What do you think? Where do you think these objects belong?

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures