Centre of African Studies

Professor Paul Basu

Key information

Centre of African Studies Member
MSc PhD (London)
Russell Square: College Buildings
Telephone number
0207 898 4424
Support hours
Email for appointment


Paul Basu received his PhD in Anthropology at University College London, where he was a member of the Material Culture Research Group. His doctoral research was concerned with genealogical heritage tourism and the historical imagination in the Scottish Highland diaspora. His regional specialization has subsequently been focused in West Africa, and particularly in Sierra Leone, where he continues to work on issues around landscape, memory and cultural heritage. Most recently Paul has been working in Nigeria, retracing the itineraries of the colonial anthropologist N. W. Thomas. Paul was Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Sussex University, before returning to UCL to take up a Readership in Material Culture and Museum Studies. He became Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Heritage at UCL prior to joining SOAS in 2015. Before becoming an anthropologist, Paul trained and worked as a filmmaker, and he continues to explore the use of different media in ethnographic research and exhibition curation.

He is currently leading a 3-year AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements’ – see re-entanglements.

Research interests

Paul Basu’s research interests centre around spatial, temporal and intercultural dynamics. Much of his work is strongly interdisciplinary in character, drawing upon historical and archaeological approaches as well as ethnographic methods, to investigate local understandings of the past and its relationship with the present and the future. As well as anthropological research on issues around cultural memory, landscape and heritage, Paul engages in museum- and heritage-related consultancy work, working alongside the British Museum’s Africa Programme, for example, and recently leading a legislative review for the Sierra Leonean Government.

Palimpsest Memoryscapes: Historical Consciousness in Sierra Leone

Paul is currently writing up over 10 years of research exploring various ‘sites of memory’ in Sierra Leone at which not only different accounts of the past accumulate, but also where different ‘ontologies’ of pastness coalesce and interfere with one another. He is particularly interesting in these interferences and the tensions and affordances they produce. He engages with a memoryscape that includes both physical sites and monuments, but also embodied practices and material flows of images, objects and ideas. Aspects of this research have been funded by an AHRC Large Grant, a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, the British Museum, and Nuffield Foundation.

Cultural mapping with the community, Gbandi, Bo District, Sierra Leone.


Revisiting Colonial Anthropology in West Africa

Paul has a long-standing interest in the history of anthropology and colonialism in West Africa. He has recently begun a project retracing the itineraries of the early colonial anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, who conducted research in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. Thomas left a remarkable collection of photographs, sound recordings and objects, as well as field notes and publications, and Paul is exploring creative ways of using this anthropological archive to re-engage with communities where Thomas worked a century ago. This research has been funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship and is the subject of a new AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Museum Affordances: Activating West African Ethnographic Archives and Collections through Experimental Museology’


Photo elicitation work with the anthropological archive, Afokpella, North Edo, Nigeria.


Material Migrations, Object Diasporas and Global Museumscapes

Since his PhD research on genealogical roots-tourism, ancestral homelands and the diasporic imagination, Paul has been interested in both human migration (including tourism and pilgrimage) and migrations of things, ideas and aesthetics. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, huge quantities of ethnographic objects were set in motion and accumulated in museums around the world. The majority of these historical collections now lay dormant and unseen. One strand of Paul’s research with such collections has been to consider their ‘action possibilities’ in the present; for example, their capacity to contribute to socio-cultural reanimation in post-conflict contexts. This was the theme of his AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project, which produced the www.sierraleoneheritage.org digital resource and an associated cultural programme in Sierra Leone.

Mural promoting the www.sierraleoneheritage.org website on the walls of the Sierra Leone National Museum, Freetown.


Instrumentalization of Culture and Cultural Heritage

Paul has a broader research interest in how culture and cultural heritage is instrumentalized by international organisations, governments and civil society to serve a variety of social, political and economic objectives. UNESCO identifies culture as a vehicle for economic development, for social cohesion and stability, for environmental sustainability, and for resilient communities, yet there is little research to substantiate these claims. As well as his own research on the perceived power of culture for development, Paul is an editor of the Routledge Studies in Culture and Development book series which seeks to bring together work in this field.

Visual Anthropology and Exhibitions

Paul originally trained and worked as a filmmaker, and has curated, designed and led various museum- and exhibition-based projects, including the recent Sowei Mask: Spirit of Sierra Leone display at the British Museum. Paul continues to employ visual and audio methods in his research, and to experiment with exhibition techniques as a way of engaging diverse publics in the production of anthropological knowledge.

Installation shot of Sowei Mask display, British Museum. Historical mask juxtaposed with a film loop of the contemporary masquerade.


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