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Title: Connecting histories: recontextualising the West African Collection at the Manchester Museum
Author: Poulter, Emma Katherine
ISNI:       0000 0004 2748 2564
Awarding Body: University of Manchester
Current Institution: University of Manchester
Date of Award: 2008
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This thesis takes a biographical approach to the West African collections at the Manchester Museum, unravelling the historical trajectories these objects have taken through time and space. At the heart of this study are the questions of how and why objects travelled from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other. I will also examine the ways they have subsequently been used (or disused), interpreted and understood. Despite a 'culture of amnesia' (Huyssen 1995) which has meant that the majority of these objects have, until now, remained under researched in the museum stores, this thesis shows how objects in the West African collections at the Manchester Museum have dynamic and pertinent stories to tell. Most of Europe's museums and galleries were established during the nineteenth century. As such the life-histories of many of the non-Western objects in these museum collections relate to histories of colonialism and its legacy. Although some museums are beginning to examine these connections in their recently curated displays, many other institutions have avoided tackling these subjects and the questions that they raise. Objects and their meanings exist on various levels, pointing to the specific as well as to the wider contexts in which they were produced, consumed and re-articulated. In addition to this, the meanings of objects are not fixed but shift and accrue over time. Through an interrogation of their materiality, museum objects enable us to unlock these complex, interconnected and often overlooked histories. Integral to these nuances of meaning are the themes of identity, status, memory and hybridity. By piecing together the fragmented archival information which exists about the West African collections at the Manchester Museum, via the use of a database compiled by the author, it is possible to consider the ways in which these themes are linked to and resonate through, objects. Crucial to this thesis is the consideration not only of the stories which objects tell, but also the possibilities for their present and future display that these shared narratives raise. Through a series of case studies this study examines how processes connected to colonialism, trade, industry and empire effected the production of, and interactions with, material culture in specific and tangible ways. As these case studies bring to light, there is much potential to utilise a biographical approach to incorporate new perspectives, shared histories and contemporary meanings relating to these objects into museum displays. Objects actively shape the interactions which take place through and around them. In the last two chapters of this thesis I use the idea of the contact zone (Pratt 1992, Clifford 1997) to demonstrate how the West African collections at the Manchester Museum can be used to facilitate ongoing relationships within the museum today. As I assess in the conclusion, the milieu of critical self-evaluation in which this thesis is located and the growing interest in the meanings of the museum objects, is gradually being reflected in museum practice through its displays as well as its rhetoric. Within this context this thesis shows how, through a biographical approach to objects and by drawing on the contact zone perspective, the museum environment can act as a dialogic arena in which complex meanings and histories can be investigated and debated. 9
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available