Namibian Narratives project at the Powell Cotton Museum, Kent

The Powell Cotton Museum in Birchington, Kent, holds important collections of objects from northern Namibia and southern Angola. The Museum acquired about 4,500 items in 1936–7 in Oukwanyama (the Kwanyama kingdom that straddles the Namibia–Angola boundary). These include clothes, cooking utensils, jewellery and dolls.

On 29 June I was invited to the Museum for a talk on their recent acquisition of newly made items from northern Namibia. Through its ‘Namibian Narratives’ project, the Museum has committed to ‘foregrounding the communities and individuals who made, used and cared for our collections’. Dr Napandulwe Shiweda (University of Namibia) and Dr Nicola Stylianou (University of Sussex) have worked with craftswomen in northern Namibia to commission new items, asking the makers what they would like to produce for the Museum in order to represent their lives and lived experiences in northern Namibia today. The result is a beautiful collection of new beadwork, clothing and dolls, created through collaboration with local partners.

The Powell Cotton Museum’s initiative takes place at a time of ongoing, broader debates on decolonising museum collections, given that many objects in UK museums were collected in the colonial period under conditions of coercion and violence. The Namibian Narratives project aims to use a different, more just model. It is based on a previous research project, ‘Making African Connections’ (2019–2021), which, partnering with African experts, focused on the collections of three museums in Kent and Sussex.

The Powell Cotton Museum project also builds on the work of a small team of Namibia activists (Arne Sjogren, Gerrit Swanepoel, Lorna Richardson and myself) who visited the Museum in 2005–6 and photographed part of the Kwanyama collections. Our project took place in response to a request from Dr Jeremy Silvester, Director of the Museums Association of Namibia, who sadly died of Covid in Namibia last year, and it was kindly funded by Friends of Namibia.

We created a CD-Rom with our photographs of the collection items, together with their catalogue descriptions, and sent it to institutions in Namibia and Angola. At the Powell Cotton Museum talk in June, Dr Shiweda mentioned that this CD had first made her aware of these collections. We were also able to make the photographs and digitised catalogue entries available to the Making African Connections project. It’s good to see that our small project (supported by Friends of Namibia) has contributed to long-term efforts to publicise these collections and make them more accessible to Namibians.

For more information, see:

(Dr) Marion Wallace, 15 August 22

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