You are not holding the artefacts … you are holding the communities.
A new documentary - Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces - follows a delegation of Maasai from Tanzania and Kenya as they visit and advise the director and curators from the Pitt Rivers Museum, a museum of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Oxford.
The delegation of Maasai leaders from Tanzania and Kenya worked with PRM to carry out a comprehensive inventory of 88 Maasai artefacts held in the collection in 2018.
The primary objective of that visit was not only to provide or correct the descriptions and narratives associated (or not) with the objects, but, more importantly, to identify artefacts that were problematic or sacred, which should not have found their way into the museum; objects such as the orkata (bracelet) and the isurutia (head piece), objects of inheritance for men and women that were never sold, never given away.
Upon their return home, the delegation united with Maasai leaders from Kenya, trained facilitators in participatory video (PV), consulted Maasai spiritual leader Makompo Ole Simel and, using participatory media, conducted a mass community consultation across different Maasai clans in Kenya and Tanzania, reaching 70 percent of the Maasai community.
They showed photographs of what they had found at PRM, to stimulate discussion about what should be done about these problematic artefacts. What kind of relationship or action should be taken with the PRM as an institution?
They used social media, interactive radio shows and face-to-face meetings to conduct a lively and inclusive debate. Although some urban professionals - seen as the ‘elites’ within the Maasai community - were calling for legal action against the museum, the traditional elders cautioned against this and asked for peaceful resolution, mindful that aggressive strategies to right past (or present) wrongs had not succeeded.
Better to pursue, they counselled, a non-violent, discursive and negotiated approach to collaborating with the PRM on an equal footing, each taking on board the other’s understanding and approach to knowledge acquisition, philosophy and understanding.
A feedback video of the process was created with the community and screened during the 2020 visit. The video made clear to the UK partners the advice and directions from Makompo Ole Simel (who was unable to travel with the delegation due to ceremonial responsibilities at home) and his son, Lemaron Ole Parit, who joined the delegation to provide advice and guidance using traditional knowledge systems and conduct traditional ceremonies as appropriate.
Now there are aspirations to find the resources for a larger scale research project, potentially reaching other museums in the UK and across Europe, to begin the process of reparation and healing, to acknowledge the impact of the colonial past, return particular sacred objects and update and correct the narratives and descriptions associated with museum collections of Maasai artefacts.
There are aspirations to apply this model with other indigenous communities whose artefacts are held in museums across the UK and Europe.
This is an incredible achievement, and it is worth revisiting the beginnings from which this amazing and ground-breaking initiative has grown over the last few years.
Living Cultures emerged in part as a result of engagement with the Pitt Rivers Museum. But the seeds for the future of this initiative were sown way before, at the first PV workshop attended by Maasai community leader Samwel Nangiria in 2014 with InsightShare, and at the subsequent training of Maasai PV facilitators and the establishment of Oltoilo le Maa (Voice of the Maasai) video collective.
Oltoilo le Maa used PV to document aspects of Maasai culture and record current living practices and Maasai traditions, as well as enabling girls and women to present their views on their rights.
PV was also used to reunite and engage an increasingly fractured community, ravaged by land rights struggles and abuses and facing constant threat of displacement.
They used PV to challenge policy at parliamentary level, with the community solidly behind them, having contributed their knowledge and their opinions through the PV process.
The Tanzanian parliament watched Olosho, which contributed to a new peaceful dialogue with the government. The film was also screened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and across the world – it has had over 61,000 views to date. Pride Land (2018) documents the particular struggle with forced evictions, often violent, to make way for luxury game resorts.
These struggles continue today.
How can we ensure that the narratives of current struggles and customs are represented? How can we confront the interface between the colonial past and the neoliberal present, and its impact on the everyday lives of indigenous?
An interview with Samwel Nangiria at the Pitt Rivers Museum last February 2020 makes the importance of participatory video clear.
After Samwel’s first visit to PRM in 2017, when he was shocked to see sacred Maasai objects at the museum, he reported his observations to Maasai elders and used participatory video to voice their concerns to PRM Director Laura van Broekhoven.
In essence, this was the moment at which Samwel and his community wanted to take forward the idea of decolonising the museum space. He emphasises the importance of the participatory process and the role of trained Maasai facilitators: “If we had hired somebody to come and film, I’m sure the message would have been different”.
In the podcast ‘Decolonising Museums – The Maasai and Oxford’ Laura recalls the moment when she and her team received the video: "The messages were very powerful, but it was also very well produced.
"Eight elders were sitting in a semi-circle with Samwel. They all had different ideas about of what was problematic. They were going to keep us, the museum leadership, accountable for having these objects. The way they write their history is through objects ... it’s a very powerful film”.
Participatory video is not simply about producing a film with communities. The process of engagement includes regular screenings of work in progress as well as of the final product, enabling greater viewpoints and opinions to find their way into the final rendition of the video.
At the screenings, people can not only discuss the topics covered, but identify gaps, or places that need more or less emphasis.
In 2020, the Maasai delegation not only continued to work with Pitt Rivers Museum, but also began the process with the Museum of Archaeology in Cambridge, the World Museum in Liverpool and the Horniman Museum in London.
At the Horniman, a facilitated meeting took place to begin to determine how Living Cultures could develop further and engage more partners and stakeholders. The meeting discussed which sacred objects should be treated as human remains - for example the orkata and the isurutia - arrangements for their repatriation or cultural ceremonial separation, and the updating of museum records and descriptions.
As we chart the evolution of the Living Cultures project as stimulated by the Maasai leaders and elders, it makes sense to include participatory visual/digital methods in the design of further research, building on the skills of the Oltoilo le Maa video collective, extending its reach to include more voices into the generation of knowledge about the objects, customs and ways of life at the time of their collection and of their significance and relevance now.
Voicing, listening and learning must go deeper than simply identifying and articulating the stories behind the collections in a museum.
This is where Living Cultures is reaching towards the very essence of power in knowledge production systems. The documentary shows a remarkable bringing together of epistemological positions, from PRM’s (and most mainstream museums) earlier prioritising of curatorial knowledge, to its current shift in its ‘Committed to Change’ provenance statement in which it lays out its commitment to the ‘co-production of knowledge’.
In the documentary, we witness traditional, spiritual knowledge production collaborating with western, academic approaches to knowledge production, together determining the provenance of the ‘problematic’ or sensitive objects identified by the Maasai team.
This bringing together of epistemologies is a hugely important step forward in the levelling of knowledge as power within the context of colonial narratives.
In the process of decoloniality, we must recognise that simply the removal of colonialism physically is not enough, as the power structures continue metaphysically, promulgating the knowledges of the colonisers through epistemicide (2020, Ndlovu-Gatsheni).
Participatory video has enabled the Maasai community to pursue justice in its current struggles against culturecide, against the displacement of its people from their land and ways of life, and has provided tools for socially engaged debate on an equal platform.
Now, within the context of approaching decoloniality within museum settings, participatory video can provide a socially engaged means of knowledge production to set the stories straight.
In Living Cultures, the Maasai have embraced participatory video as a means to voice change, stimulate listening and foster enduring partnerships with institutions that have held their objects, held “the secret of exactly what happened” (Nangiria, 2020).
This, in the past, would have been almost unimaginable.