British Columbia

Former UBC students, curator reflect on decolonizing Museum of Anthropology's African collections

The project's goal was to move away from how Western society describes the objects, and bring in more knowledge from the objects' places of origin to paint a more accurate picture of how they were used.

Museum is now updating descriptions of items in the collection using information discovered by students

Former UBC students Lorena Edah, left, and Marie-Reine Mukazayire, right, conducted research to create new descriptions for objects that were part of the Museum of Anthropology's African collections. (Submitted by Lorena Edah and Marie-Reine Mukazayire)

Over the last few years, some Canadian museums have announced they are decolonizing some of their collections and exhibits.

One of those museums is the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, which announced in late 2021 it would be closing sections of the First People's gallery in order to work with Indigenous peoples to appropriately repatriate and conserve certain items.

But what does the process of decolonization look like in action? 

Members of the Decolonizing the African Collections and Displays at the Museum of Anthropology (DAC-MOA) project can offer some insight. For two years, members of the group, which included students at the University of British Columbia, conducted research to create new descriptions for objects that were part of the African collections. 

Nuno Porto, project lead and curator for African and South American collections at MOA, says students researched where the objects came from and what African languages and cultures they were associated with. 

Porto says the aim of the project was to move away from how Western society describes the objects, and bring in more knowledge from the objects' places of origin to paint a more accurate picture of how they were used.

Expanding sources of information

Recent UBC graduates Lorena Edah and Marie-Reine Mukazayire say as Africans who have lived and studied in B.C., it was an empowering experience to help reclaim the histories of objects from their home continent.

"I identified [with] a lot of these objects as objects I grew up with in my household," Edah said. "I want other people to understand as well and you know, to spread that knowledge."

A wooden tablet with writing from the Qu'ran, known as a 'lawh,' is pictured here in UBC's Museum of Anthropology. Museum curator Nuno Porto says the item's description was recently updated to include its Arabic name and more information about its use by the Nupe ethnic group in Nigeria. (Submitted by Nuno Porto)

A wooden plank that was labelled as a writing tablet, with scripture from the Qu'ran written on it, now has its Arabic name 'lawh' added to its description.

Porto says the new description also includes an English translation of the the text, and how it was used by the Nupe ethnic group in Nigeria.

Porto says the students were encouraged to look at different sources of information — videos, books, museums in Africa — and talking to knowledge keepers and relatives in Africa, rather than relying solely on academic resources to come up with the descriptions. 

"Different forms of seeing the world and experiencing the world ... none of them better than the other," he said.

Examining the objects

According to a written release, there are over 5,000 objects from Africa in MOA's collection. 

The team behind the two-year project — the UBC African Awareness Initiative, the UBC Black Students Union, instructor and Hogan's Alley Society co-chair Adam Rudder, and history professor David Morton — was granted funding under the UBC Program for Undergraduate Research Experience in 2019.

Porto says the museum was able to train and employ 32 students with a background in African Studies to check the accuracy of the descriptions and update them accordingly. 

The students were broken up into cohorts of eight over four semesters. Edah and Mukazayire participated in the last group during the 2021 winter-spring semester, where they focused on objects from Western African nations. 

A West African pestle, which is part of the collection, is pictured here. Former UBC student Lorena Edah says while studying this artifact, she learned that specially-carved mortar and pestles were used in coming-of-age ceremonies. (Kyla Bailey/The Museum of Anthropology at UBC)

Edah identifies as Togolese, but says she has lived in many African countries throughout her life. 

She says she decided to focus on objects related to food production, such as the mortar and pestle, used to crush and grind ingredients for cooking. 

During her research, Edah says she discovered the utensils were also used in coming-of-age ceremonies by the Ewe and Kabiyè ethnic groups of Togo. The mortar and pestle were carved from a specific type of wood, known as atitoè, to be used at the ceremony, she says.

As a symbol of transition into adulthood, the men would pound most of the food for the ceremony with this specially-carved mortar and pestle.

A Ci-Wara headdress used by the Bamana ethnic group in southern Mali, pictured here, was used in agriculture ceremonies to give thanks for a successful harvest, says former UBC student Marie-Reine Mukazayire. (Derek Tan/The Museum of Anthropology at UBC)

Mukazayire, who is from Rwanda, looked into headdresses and masks used in Francophone countries such as Mali and Côte d'Ivoire. One item she examined was the Ci-Wara, an antelope-shaped headdress used by the Bamana  people of southern Mali. 

She says the headdress represents a god-like hero with the same name who is half-man, half-antelope and is associated with agriculture. It was worn in ceremonies and used in dance rituals in the 19th and 20th centuries to thank Ci-Wara for a good harvest, Mukazayire says. 

Porto says the even though the research part of the project has wrapped up, the museum is now working to update descriptions of the items using the information discovered by the students. The decolonizing process is always ongoing, Porto says.

"[It's] continuous. It's not something we did and it's done. On the contrary, it's something we've begun and it's never finished."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.