Collections belong to communities and without people museums are just storage warehouses. Collections are for public use.

A case study from the Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum’s collections have a wealth of stories to reveal. We’re passionate these stories should be told from different perspectives, in all their complexity.

We actively build partnerships and establish relationships of trust with stakeholders across the globe, but also with our local communities. In past years, this has brought a great range of people into the museum to activate and mobilise the collections in new ways, including indigenous knowledge keepers, researchers, students, and a wide variety of community bodies.

One example is the Maasai Living Cultures project started in 2017, when Samwel Nangiria visited the Museum as part of NGO Insightshare’s Indigenous Leadership programme. Maasai representatives from Kenya and Tanzania visited three times over three years.

During these visits, the delegates expressed concerns about the presence of five of the 188 objects and indicated that without spiritual intervention their continued presence in Oxford would cause great anxiety.

We are awaiting further guidance from the Chief Laibon (spiritual leader) of the Maasai, Laibon Mokompo Ole Parit, to find ways forward with the Maasai community. Conversations have also started about how the museum speaks about the Maasai in displays, databases and education programmes.

These partnerships offer creativity and learning, but are also complex and challenging. Facing this complexity is integral to ensuring we welcome everyone and tell honest, multi-voiced stories fit for the 21st century.

The nature of our collections makes decolonisation an urgent priority, with curatorial authority to be shared and/or handed to Indigenous curators, knowledge keepers and artists. In programming we prioritise community members over curatorial voices and in our interpretation we aim to include epistemologies of the South.

By offering more meaningful understandings, we can work towards a more hopeful future that will keep the museum and its collections relevant for generations to come.

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