Comfort Tamanda Mtotha recently received funding from ASC for her Ph.D. research and fieldwork. Mtotha is beginning the third year of her history Ph.D. at U-M.  Her research interrogates the history and politics of collecting objects in Southern Africa. Mtotha looks at issues such as how objects were collected by missionaries, and how those objects ended up in Europe, both in museums and private collections, and how these institutions were established. Specifically, she is interested in museums in Malawi and Scotland. This comparison is interesting because Mtotha has found that objects in museum collections in both countries are often similar, but their social histories are quite different. 

Mtotha told ASC, “during the 1960s and 1970s, new museums were seen as a way to form unity in newly independent countries in Africa; at the same time there was a tension in that many presidents also wanted to use museums for their own gain.” Mtotha used the funding from ASC to employ research assistants in Malawi who worked to access, and document archival documents. Mtotha said “I interpret the past by understanding the social life of things and how they change meanings between time and space. Understanding the provenance of things has helped me recover exciting stories.” ASC recently interviewed Mtotha to learn more about these stories, and about her groundbreaking Ph.D. research.

Firstly, congratulations on receiving this award! Could you please give us an introduction to your research? What does your research show and explain?

It’s been an honor to receive this reward amid the COVID-19 pandemic when nearly everything was at a standstill with the lockdown. Thanks to the ASC funding, I was able to push my work forward by researching the socio-political history of African museum collections. My work concentrates on how these objects change meanings not only when they enter museums in the global North but on the African continent itself. These objects undergo many changes through their interface with people, space, and time. When we pay attention to objects, they provide a window to interrogate the past as a quest to rewrite history and remembrance. In my work, I demonstrate how material culture reflects the dynamics of public culture and conversations of intellectual and public history, race and ethnicity, religion, and nationalism.

This summer was a challenging one for all Ph.D. students. How did it impact you and your research, and how did you adapt?

Absolutely! It was even more challenging for many of us whose archive is outside the US. I was fortunate to be able to revise my project during the peak of COVID-19 and work virtually. I changed my project a bit and found two assistants to take photographs of objects and scan accompanying documents. They worked assiduously and gave me daily updates. With health concerns, they worked in turns at the institution where the data was. It equally became challenging for them to meet, but sharing responsibility made the work progress well. As for me in Ann Arbor, I concentrated on consolidating and analyzing data. We worked for about seven to eight hours every day.

The main challenge at the beginning of the project was interpreting the objects in the absence of physical pieces. Because my work deals with the combination of history and physical form, I needed a complete understanding of the objects' architecture. The photographs taken by the research assistants gave me a new dimension of how to read my sources and were an important medium for this virtual research. 

Can you please tell us a little more about some of these objects?

One collection of British plantation farmers, Victor and Theodore Cox, stands out. They acquired the objects in the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries in Malawi. It is a collection of beaded materials including adornments, weapons (spears, arrows, clubs, and axes), ceremonial items (shields, scepters, headrests), musical instruments, and other assorted objects like cowrie shells, human figurines, masks, medicine gourds, and horns. Their collection moved through several hands and journeyed from Malawi to the United Kingdom as a gift. It then moved to the USA as part of household items before entering Whatcom Museum in Bellingham as a donation. After resting in Bellingham for almost half a century, from 1941 until early 1989, the objects returned to Malawi as a donation from the US government. The collection was a gift for 25 years of Malawi's independence and turned into what can be called a national collection. 

How did the Museum fit in the postcolonial agendas of promoting the leadership of the country’s president?

During the repatriation of the Cox collection in 1989, it was evident through speeches that the museum tried to promote the leadership of President Kamuzu Banda. At the official handover ceremony, the objects themselves were politicized and served to glorify the regime of Banda. The objects bore multiple meanings, which were presented as all coming together in Banda’s biography. His multiple journeys to the United States and the United Kingdom were likened to the way the collection went overseas. Similar to Banda, it returned to “serve” the interests of Malawians, a nationalist cause. The life of the objects and the life of Banda became intertwined.

What do these objects tell us about colonialism, postcolonialism, and Malawi now?

In general, there is more to learn through objects. What was collected during the colonial period informs what is valued in museums today. Colonialism defined the logic of collecting, primarily in the case of ethnographic collections. With a few exceptions, postcolonial museums have continued the same trend. It may take some time to decolonize these museums as they have their taproots in ethnography and anthropology; infusing history will help change prevalent interpretations where too often objects place to serve people in predetermined categories. We should understand that the whole nature of establishing many museums in twentieth-century Africa bears testimony to the complex relationship between the colonial collectors and the people they encountered.

Where do you see your future work developing from this point on? 

As a scholar of intellectual and public history, my work is multidisciplinary. I would like to see how ideas of these objects residing in Africa change meaning through time and space. I am interested in exploring how concepts of agency are reconfigured in the study of objects because it is through them [objects] that we understand the social lives of people. As Chris Gosden and Chantal Knowles posit “objects cannot tell their own biographies - we have to construct them from the materials available to us.”