In her essay, Comfort Mtotha engages head-on with the complicated and often contentious politics surrounding the repatriation of African cultural heritage objects by tracing the history of the Victor and Theodore Cox collection. The Coxes were 19th-century tea plantation owners who amassed a large collection of East African cultural objects in this personal collection that eventually ended up in the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington, before being returned to the Museum of Malawi in 1989. Mtotha’s essay will form a central part of her dissertation.
I am interested in the question of provenance in museums and the mechanics of collecting, which in many ways abstract African objects from the material and political contexts in which they were created,” says Mtotha. “When objects move between time and space, the documentation attached is traced to the collectors. Little is known about the producers, the exchange, or the value assigned to the pieces during production. The absence of all this information in museum accession records or inventory books creates limitations in understanding the historical contexts of objects.
Mtotha is currently in her fourth year of Ph.D. study and works under the supervision of Professor Derek Peterson. She has recently received a Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) award from the Social Science Research Council that will enable her to do onsite archival research during the 2022-23 academic year.
Started in 2014 by the African Studies Center, the Lester P. Monts Award is given to a U-M graduate student for an outstanding original research paper, documentary film, or creative performance focused on Africa. This award was established in honor of Lester P. Monts, Distinguished Professor of Ethnomusicology and former senior vice provost for academic affairs, for his unfailing support of Michigan’s engagement with Africa.