Column from Powell Cotton Museum: Re-Imagining the Museum -Namibian Narratives

Changing times at Powell Cotton Museum

Thanks for reading this next part in our discussion on re-imagining the future of the Powell-Cotton Museum. So far, we’ve spoken a lot about what we’d like to change and why. This week, we’d like to tell you about an exciting new project, already in the pipeline, that will put some of those ideas into action.

In April this year, Head of Collections and Engagement, Dr. Inbal Livne, should have been travelling to Namibia as part of an Arts Council England funded project called ‘Namibian Narratives: Updating the Powell-Cotton Collection’. Due to COVID-19 the trip had to be cancelled, but we are delighted that Arts Council England have continued to support us and we will resume the project in April 2021.

This project will be the first time in the Museum’s history that objects commissioned for the collection will be chosen by an originating community (in this case, Ovambo women from northern Namibia) as items which represent their lives and lived experiences today.

As Dr Livne says: “We need to stop ‘speaking for’ others and give up the space for the communities historically ‘collected’ by museums to speak freely on their own terms. Putting Ovambo women at the heart of a project to make a contemporary collection that will be on long-term display will, I hope, signal to the communities whose objects we hold that we are serious about changing how we work.”

[Images: Baby carrier and skirt made by Tresia Shekudja; Tresia Shekudja at the Ongwediva Annual Trade Fair (2019) where she sells beadwork and local food products © Nicola Stylianou 2019]
This new collection will update the Museum’s world-class collection of historic Ovambo objects and photographs, collected by Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton in 1936-37. The Powell-Cottons collected over 2500 objects from northern Namibia and southern Angola, making it one of the largest collections from the region in the world. Some of the highlights of the collection are beadwork items, particularly those worn by women for marriage and initiation ceremonies. The new commissions will include work from Tresia Shekudja a contemporary beadwork specialist, though the exact nature of what will be made will be led by the makers.

This project is a collaboration between scholars and makers in Namibia and the UK and will be led by Dr Livne, Dr Napandulwe Shiweda (University of Namibia) and Dr Nicola Stylianou (University of Sussex). In addition to the new commissions, filmmaker Erasmus Stephanus will film the commissioned makers. These interviews will form an important part of the new displays, bringing contemporary Namibian voices into the Museum, talking about their own culture in their own words.

The project has come out of the ‘Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections’ project, run by the University of Sussex and funded by the AHRC, which highlighted the significance of the historic Ovambo collections held by the Museum. ‘Namibian Narratives’ is being generously funded by the University of Sussex and Arts Council England.

We’ll be bringing you more about this project next year, when we are able to get underway. In the meantime, as always, feel free to email collections@powell-cottonmuseum.org