SOAS University of London

Professor Paul Basu’s [Re:] Entanglements project culminates with a ground-breaking exhibition at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA)

14 June 2021
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Paramount Chief Kandeh Sori Kakanday III of Samaya, Sierra Leone, holding a photograph of his ancestor, Chief Almamy Suri Kandeh, taken by Northcote Thomas in 1914. Image: Paul Basu.

[Re:] Entanglements: Colonial collections in decolonial times will be on show at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA) from 22 June 2021 – 17 April 2022. 

The exhibition is the culmination of the AHRC-funded ‘Museum Affordances’ project led by Paul Basu, Professor of Anthropology alongside Dr George Agbo of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and involving multiple partnerships in West Africa, the UK and beyond.

The project seeks to re-engage with the ethnographic archive assembled by the University of Cambridge-educated colonial anthropologist, Northcote Whitridge Thomas (1868-1936) in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915.

The ‘Thomas Collection’ includes masks, drums, carved wooden figures and staffs, pottery, textiles, charms, dolls, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, published work and field notes.

The exhibition opens amid growing debate about the restitution of objects looted from Africa now held by British museums. It is often forgotten, however, that the vast majority of objects came to Britain through other means and have their own complicated stories to tell.

Basu says: “These materials were still assembled in the context of colonial inequalities, of course. The operation of colonial power works in many different ways, but Northcote Thomas purchased from markets and commissioned makers, and the complexity of that relationship needs attention just as the removal of the Benin Bronzes does.”

Highlights of the exhibition include some of the thousands of fieldwork photographs taken by Thomas to capture daily life in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The project has managed to share many of these images with the descendants of those photographed. Basu says: “It’s almost always an occasion of joy and amazement, entangled with ideas about reincarnation. It's not merely a nice thing to have a photograph of your great-grandfather; it is much more profound. It's almost as if the ancestors are speaking across a century.”

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Re-Entanglements installation - Kelani Abass

A focal point of the exhibition is an Olokun pot that Thomas purchased in Benin City in 1909. Pots of this kind were installed on shrines to the deity Olokun. The pot was probably broken on its long journey to Cambridge where it was soon repaired but poorly. As part of the project, the pot has been dismantled and reconstructed using modern conservation techniques.

For Basu, the pot offers a powerful metaphor for colonial engagement: “Something whole and integrated was, through the colonial project, broken into pieces. The ethnographic museum tried to put it back together but clumsily. One hundred years on, we’re taking it apart again, deconstructing the coloniality, reassembling and offering a gesture of repair. But you will see all the cracks, the evidence of the original violence.”

Alongside the pot visitors will see a modern reproduction cast in brass in Benin City, to instigate a dialogue with the Benin Bronzes looted by British forces in 1897. Other contemporary works on display will include a series of ten paintings by the Nigerian artist Kelani Abass entitled ‘Colonial Indexicality’. Responding to photograph albums held by the National Museum in Lagos, the only materials from Thomas’ surveys to remain in Nigeria, they evoke the disintegration and discolouration of the archive, but also the ubiquity of the anthropologist’s numbering systems. They remind us of how people and their cultural practices were transformed into objects of knowledge by this colonial science.

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Reconstructed clay Olokun pot collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City, Nigeria, in 1909. Image: Carmen Vida / UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Professor Paul Basu says: “Decolonising museums and archives is very important, and something that absolutely needs to happen. But there can be a tendency to over-simplify. Rather than dismissing these collections as being tainted by colonialism, the exhibition asks that we look at them more closely. How do they shift our understanding of what coloniality was – and is? How might we use these collections to work through the legacies of colonialism today? I hope people will be moved by the exhibition to reflect upon the complex ways in which they personally and we, as a society, continue to be entangled in this history.”

‘Museum Affordances’ is funded by the AHRC and involves partnerships in the UK, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and beyond. These include the many institutions across which the Northcote Thomas archive has been dispersed, including Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the British Library Sound Archive, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the UK National Archives, and the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos.

Professor Basu’s research also features as part of the An Archive By Other Means exhibition at the South London Gallery in Peckham, curated by the SLG's youth forum (the Art Assassins).   

An Archive By Other Means explores the relevance of the archive assembled by Thomas  today from the perspectives of a diverse group of young people living in south London and marks the culmination of the Entanglements: Who makes history? Project.

Previous exhibitions of the [Re:]Entanglements project have also taken place in Benin City, at the National Museum in Lagos, and at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka

Listen to Professor Basu discuss the archive of Northcote Thomas and the ‘Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements’ project with SOAS Radio.

Please visit the [Re:]Entanglements project website for more information on the project. 

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