“We are a living culture, not a dead one, and a museum should not be our mausoleum.”
– Samwel Nangiria, Rural Human Rights Defender 2017, Tanzania
What is the Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces project?
Many museums contain objects of great cultural or spiritual value that were collected from Indigenous communities under the violence of colonialism.
The process of marginalisation that placed the European experience at the centre of historical narratives endures today. Objects, some of them sacred, are presented as artefacts of obsolete cultures. Incorrect information or ambiguous stories of ‘collection’ are continued sources of pain for affected communities.
The Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces project supports Indigenous Peoples as they address these deep-rooted historical problems. We work with communities as they spread the message that Indigenous cultures are living cultures.
Indigenous-led engagement with museums
How can an Indigenous community engage with the history and accepted knowledge of these institutions? And how should an institution address these issues?
This question revealed itself when Maasai InsightShare associates visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and viewed objects in the collections there.
Consequently, Living Cultures has been building an approach to enable collaborative working between Indigenous communities and the museums that hold objects from their cultures. Participatory Video is at the heart of this strategy.
In particular, InsightShare have been supporting Maasai representatives as they pursue dialogue with museums.
2020: A growing movement to decolonise museums
A delegation of seven Maasai representatives came to the UK to report back on community consultations in Kenya and Tanzania. The delegation worked with a widening group of museums on the issue of representation and decolonising cultural spaces.
The mission of the delegation included spiritual consultation by Lemaron Ole Parit, the son and heir of Mokompo Ole Simel, Maasai spiritual leader. The visit emphasised the need for a healing process based on mutual respect.
This trip involved working alongside curators at museums including the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, the University of Cambridge’s Musuem of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Horniman Museum.
The Maasai delegates spoke at events including Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces, jointly hosted between InsightShare and Pitt Rivers Museum, and Exploring Decolonisation: Education and Environmentalism, organised by Extinction Rebellion Universities. These events spread the message of the work to new audiences, and build vital global alliances.
“The currently discovered Maasai artefacts reveal connection between previous and current struggles. We are not looking for conflict, but seek a mutual respect and deeper engagement.”
– Makompo Ole Simel, Maasai spiritual leader
2019: Community mobilisation using Participatory video
Maasai facilitators have undertaken a widespread Participatory Video process across different Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania. This consultation engages people to share their hopes and concerns around the project. This means that decision making and strategy building is truly participatory and the project partners are accountable to the various Maasai communities.
Maasai elders and community leaders came together in a momentous meeting to discuss the Living Cultures project. Mokompo Ole Simel – a Maasai spiritual leader and the grandchild of Senteu, one of the best known of all Maasai Loibon (spiritual leaders), and Mpatiany – gave his guidance to the 2020 delegation.
The resulting video was screened during the 2020 visit.
2018: Realigning narratives in Oxford
A Maasai delegation visited Oxford and worked with curators for five days. Representatives were able to share valuable knowledge on artefacts presented to them during this time. This helped complete and correct the original labels. Furthermore, the elders of their communities provided a perspective on five sacred objects that were discovered in the museum.
Events for 300 people were held in Oxford and London, showcasing the Maasai videos on land rights and traditional land management and exploring the link between the colonial past and the present living culture.
2017: The seeds of living cultures
Samwel Nangiria is a Maasai activist community leader. In November 2017, Samwel joined us to work with our other indigenous partners from India and Mexico to build a network of indigenous-led participatory video hubs.
Pitt Rivers Museum hosted an event as part of this: Stories of Solidarity and Resilience. The event was moderated by Guardian journalist George Monbiot. Museum Director Laura van Broekhoven also arranged for the group to meet curators and interact with objects from their respective regions. This meeting planted the seeds for Living Cultures.