Objects of Colonial Memory

by Dr Sarah Longair

In April 2017, my colleague Chris Jeppesen (UCL/Cambridge) and I convened a workshop which marked the culmination of our ‘Objects of Colonial Memory’ project, funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Grant. Over the last two years, we have been undertaking interviews with former colonial officials and administrators who served in the last years of the British Empire, inviting them to talk about objects they have retained from their time of service overseas. Over thirty people responded to our request sent via the Overseas Pensioners Association (OSPA) and they generously welcomed us into their homes to talk about their memories of empire and objects they still keep with them today.

These interviews have revealed a wealth of insights into the acquisition and in some cases dispersal of objects in the late British Empire, how empire is remembered today, and the function that material culture plays in mediating and activating such memories. Through the workshop, we intended to share our findings and bring together scholars working on related themes. We were also delighted that two of our interviewees were able to join us on the day.

The day commenced with a short paper where Chris and I introduced our project, discussing some of the ways we are analysing the vast amount of audio and visual material we have collected. We also highlighted the urgency of such a project with this generation and how the objects and the stories associated with them may be lost when possessions are passed to the next generation or dispersed in museums and auction houses.

The first panel combined papers which placed our project in a European context. Britta Schilling (Utrecht) spoke remotely via Skype about her interviews with many generations of German families connected with empire and shared her international project ‘Beyond the Bungalow’ which crowdsources colonial photographs, objects and associated memories. Barbara Spadaro (Bristol) then discussed her interviews with Italian families who retained objects from when they lived in Libya, in particular a set of commemorative silver objects which reflected the family’s Jewish, Libyan and Italian heritage.

An image of Mt Elgon House, c. 1930-1931, Endebess, Kenya belonging to one of the interviewees in the Objects of Colonial Memory project.

©David Le Breton http://www.beyondthebungalow.com/mt-elgon-house-kenya/

In our first ‘in conversation’ session, Chris Prior (Southampton) talked to Prof Lalage Bown, former University adult education lecturer in West Africa from 1949–1955. She evocatively described her experience of working in Ghana and Nigeria as well as elsewhere in Africa since, and the variety of material scattered throughout her house from artworks to everyday items.

Our second panel took a historical perspective to collecting, as one aim of our project has been to understand better the nature of collecting and display in the past through discussing these issues with collectors today. Emma Martin (Manchester University/ Liverpool Museums) vividly charted the career of Charles Bell (1870–1945), in particular how photographs of his living space reveal how his displays can be interpreted as a response to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. Sushma Jansari (British Museum) discussed her new research into the Sri Lankan collections of Hugh Nevill (1847–1897) and her methods for piecing together his collecting practice and publications to probe at the political and cultural meaning behind his acquisitions.

Ruth Craggs (KCL) led our second ‘in conversation’ session with Mervyn Maciel, former colonial officer in Kenya from 1947–66, in which he spoke tellingly of the power of objects he has kept in his possession and those he no longer has, including a pair of elephants’ feet he returned to a charity in Kenya. His and Lalage’s stories reinforced our finding that objects rarely tell the stories we expect them to, and even the most apparently ‘colonial’ of objects have much more complex and often surprising and intimate stories of encounter associated with them.

Image from the Sutton Guardian: http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/11450175.British_Goan_writer_Mervyn_Marciel_shares_his_incredible_story_of_tragedy__tribesmen__and_settling_in_Sutton/

Our final panel brought together scholars studying and working within museums. Claire Wintle presented the early stages of her research project exploring British museums during the era of decolonisation and the active collaboration of curators with colleagues in museums in Africa. Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp (Cambridge/Horniman Museum) described the challenge of managing recently donated colonial collections and the meanings they retain for families even once moved into the museum context.

The day closed with a round table where Margot Finn (UCL), Charles Forsdick (Liverpool) and John McAleer (Southampton) connected various themes which emerged during the day and signalled future areas for research. We are extremely grateful to them for their pertinent comments, as well as the participation of presenters and attendees throughout the day. We most particularly appreciate Lalage and Mervyn sharing their experiences and bringing our project to life. We also wish to express our sincere thanks to the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust for funding the project, and UCL for supporting the workshop.