Curator/Collections Researcher

Making African Connections

Collections Documentation
Date From
April 2019
Date To
April 2021
objects from Botswana laid out on a table with a white Tyvek cover. One object, a red and white beadwork apron, is shown in a grey conservation box.

Making African Connections was an AHRC funded project led by the University of Sussex. The project ran between 2019 and 2021. It researched historic African collections held in Sussex and Kent museums with the aim of furthering both conceptual and applied debates over ‘decolonizing’ public institutions. A key strand of the project involved researching and digitizing around 600 objects from three specific Africa colonial-era collections. I worked on (re)cataloguing 19th century objects from Botswana held in Brighton Museum from the collection of Rev. Willoughby and other sources.

The Situation


The team at Brighton wanted to be transparent about what they knew and did not know about the objects in their collections from Botswana, including acknowledging the ways in which they had previously been catalogued and displayed during the 130 years that they had been in the museum. They also wanted to record the different perspectives of people from the region where the objects were collected, and of Southern African people living in the diaspora.

Museum collections management systems are often designed to have one description of the object as the focus of the record. This is usually the physical description that will allow someone to identify an object where there is no photograph. The format of one concise ‘objective’ description does not allow for nuance or for difference in opinion about the origin or meaning of an object.

The Action


The museum’s collections management system, Mimsy XG, does allow for multiple descriptions of an object to be recorded at once. But for the purposes of the project, the records needed to be combined with records from two other museums which use different collections management systems, and shared on the digital archive site using Omeka.

I transcribed accession registers and index cards, recording the date and the name of the person who wrote the description where known. I transcribed interviews which the team had conducted with people in Botswana and created alternative descriptions based on these.

For the Omeka site, I felt strongly that this system of having multiple descriptions, from different perspectives and using people’s own words, should be replicated. I could have summarised the information from the interviews into one neat description but that would have meant me as a white British museum professional editorialising the information and presenting in a ‘neutral’ institutional voice. This went against the aim of the project to experiment with decolonial practice.

The solution was to record multiple descriptions in Omeka, and to prefix the ‘core’ description with the phrase ‘physical decription’ and the new descriptions with ‘contextual description’ and to suffix each one with a note explaining who is describing the object.

The Result


I wrote new ‘core’ descriptions for 230 objects, transcribed the original loan records, accession records, index cards and labels related to the objects. This work to improve the basic documentation of the objects enabled access to the objects online and through a catalogue published in Botswana by Dr Winani Thebele and others.

The proposed loan of objects to Botswana was delayed due to the events of 2020/21 and a corresponding display at Brighton Museum was also replaced with a digital alternative. I produced a series of blog posts with fellow curators Rachel Heminway Hurst and Tshepo Skwambane.