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AHRC funded networking project:

Who Cares? The Material Heritage of British Missions in Africa and the Pacific, and its Future

AHRC LogoIn October 2012, this 9 month AHRC funded project started to explore the contemporary issues that arise around material that derives from British Christian missions in Africa and the Pacific. While these areas of the world are now overwhelmingly Christian, church attendance in Britain continues to decline. This poses a set of complex questions about who cares most about material that derives missionary activity in the past, as well as who cares for it in the present. A great deal of material now in the ethnographic collections of museum in Britain was originally collected by missionaries, and in recognition of this the Museum Ethnographers Group is an enthusiastic project partner, and is hosting the project's web presence.

Project Aims

  • To consider the ongoing significance of missionary material heritage in Britain, as well as for people in countries that received missionaries, and the implications this has for the ways in which material is catalogued, conserved and displayed
  • To explore the implications that recent scholarly accounts of the material dimensions of missionary encounters have for the curation of missionary collections
  • To review the history of curatorial engagements with missionary collections, and the tensions that have arisen from these
  • To consider the possibilities of using new technology to make information about missionary material in Britain more widely accessible
  • To bring scholars and curators together with representatives of British missionary organisations, as well as heritage organisations in Africa and the Pacific, to explore the ways in which different stakeholders engage with and care about the material heritage of mission
  • To create a strong network among those who work with British missionary material, both within and beyond the UK, by bringing together senior scholars, early career researchers, those with responsibility for missionary material in British collections, but also representatives of stakeholder groups
  • To create the conditions out of which a number of future projects and collaborations can develop, including the development of a proposal for a major collaborative research project



Africa Focus
26 - 27 November 2012
National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

The first workshop was timed to coincide with the opening of Dr Livingstone, I presume?, an exhibition in Edinburgh commemorating 200 years since the birth of David Livingstone, arguably the most famous of all British missionaries. The workshop was also attended by Tamanda Mthotha from National Museums of Malawi.
Keynote speakers included:

  • Sarah Worden, Curator of the Livingstone Exhibition, National Museums Scotland
  • Friday Mufuzi, Curator at the Livingstone Museum in Zambia

 Read an account of the workshop by Julie Adams.

UK / Collections Focus
22 - 23 March 2013
MAA/McDonald Institute, Cambridge

The second workshop was held in Cambridge and particularly addressed the significance and fate of material held in Britain that derives from the history of missionary encounters. Speakers included:

  • David Maxwell, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Cambridge
  • Rosemary Seton, Research Associate and former Head of Archives and Special Collections at SOAS
  • Rev. Ben Wate, Anglican Church of Melanesia

Read an account of the workshop by Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp

Pacific Focus
10 - 11 June 2013
University of East Anglia, Norwich

The final workshop will draw on the project's strong links with the ongoing Fijian Art Project at the University of East Anglia.


The project involves a number of international speakers, from institutions in North America, Africa and the Pacific, but also includes participants from UK museums, universities, heritage bodies and missionary organisations. The workshops are not open public conferences, but have a core group of attendees, amongst whom it is anticipated a fruitful conversation will develop. At the outset of the project expressions of interest were sought from potential participants, in particular from individuals and institutions that are members of the Museum Ethnographers Group, for whom five places at the workshops were reserved.

Project Team

The project is led by Dr Karen Jacobs, Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia and Dr Chris Wingfield, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, with National Museums Scotland as a project partner alongside the Museum Ethnographers Group.

The project is supported by an advisory group, which includes Dr Michael O'Hanlon, Pitt Rivers Museum, Prof Steven Hooper, Sainsbury Research Unit, Dr Lissant Bolton, British Museum, Dr Joshua Bell, Smithsonian Institution and Chantal Knowles, National Museums Scotland.

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