Connecting Museums, Research and Communities through International Networking

18/11/2022

Museums can influence the present by offering new transformative narratives, proactively addressing colonial legacies, and initiating fundamental changes in museum spaces. The important work done by curators and scientists at the Iziko South African Museum covers a vast range of ground-breaking research into the natural world and aims to stimulate cultural dialogue.

Curators from Iziko Museums of South Africa participated in the Protea International Curatorial Exchange program sponsored by the John Ellerman Foundation (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Foundation’). The Foundation has three program areas: the arts, environment, and welfare. The project’s purpose is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Foundation in 1971 and to facilitate field research and dialogue between museums in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Annelize Kotze, Social History Curator, and Dr Melissa Boonzaaier-Davids, Assistant Curator for Marine Invertebrates were provided with the amazing opportunity to participate in the Foundation’s curatorial exchange program to interact with, learn from and form collaborative research initiatives with international counterparts in their respective fields of focus.

Annelize focuses on issues of cultural identity and museum community engagement, especially regarding the repatriation of Human remains. Her project entitled “Understanding the shared histories of ancestral human remains collections and developing curatorial strategy supporting repatriation efforts” focuses on the social action thematic area by continuing the difficult, but necessary process of decolonising museum anthropological collections through targeted research and consultation. This project took place during June and July 2022, in collaboration with curators from the Hunterian at University of Glasgow and the Glasgow Museum, and was built on the outcomes of the work done for the Curating Discomfort program.

Annelize’s mission consisted of working with Patricia Allan, the Curator of World Cultures at Glasgow Museum, whose research interests include international repatriation, indigenous cultures and heritage, post and pre-colonial art and history. The main interest was to learn from her experience in supervising and participating in international repatriations as well as her insight on the care of Human Remains and international community engagement and making sure that communities seeking repatriation have a voice and are heard in museums’ policies, processes, and practices. During the trip, Patricia Allen was busy with quite a number of repatriations of objects to different communities all over the world and the invaluable lessons learnt (what to do, what not to do), will be of great importance to Iziko.

The second portion of the exchange was with Dr Andrew Mills, Curator for Archaeology & World Cultures at The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow. The key focus here was the Hunterian’s mission to decolonise its museum collections and how they are bringing in the voices of descendant communities into their research, policies, practices, and exhibitions as well as, and most importantly, the ancestral remains currently housed in their collections, and the development of potential curatorial processes that can assist repatriation efforts. Annelize was given the space to not only assist in having decolonial discussions regarding objects from Africa, but also to not examine but contemplate practical methods in repatriating the Human Remains back to Africa.

Following Annelize’s return to South Africa, Dr Andrew Mills completed this stage of the exchange by coming to South Africa. Here he looked at archaeological material culture for comparison to P.W. Laidler’s donations in Glasgow, worked in the Physical Anthropology collections and found numerous comparable items of South African material culture to Laidler donations in Glasgow in the Social History Centre. The most important part of this exchange was when Drs Wendy Black and Andrew Mills, with Annelize, travelled to the Kalahari to meet the community face to face. This was an amazing opportunity and a first for Both Andrew and Wendy. This engagement was very promising and further plans were made to achieve the ultimate goal of repatriation.

For the environment theme of the program, Melissa travelled to London in the UK from 16th-27th July 2022 and met with established researchers in her field to learn more about the methodologies used in bryozoology research. Melissa is a marine biologist who specialises in marine biodiversity and marine invertebrate taxonomy, specifically the systematics of bryozoans. Bryozoans, also known as moss animals or sea mats, belong to the group of marine invertebrates (i.e. animals without a spine) and are aquatic, colonial animals that typically attach themselves to various substrates such as rocks, shells and seaweeds.

Extant and fossil bryozoans are increasingly being recognised as the dominant components of many benthic communities[1] and useful in biodiversity conservation, climate change and paleoenvironmental studies. However, several taxonomic problems arose, such as synonymy, cryptic speciation[2] and Eurocentric tendencies, while existing museum collections remain unvalidated due to the scarcity of specialist taxonomists in the country. In order to address some of these issues, Melissa met with curators and researchers from the Natural History Museum in London. These discussions included molecular techniques which have become an integral part of systematics in many taxa, particularly to resolve problematic genera or cryptic species, as well as preparing and identifying fossil bryozoans. Additionally, she also examined some of their holdings of South African bryozoan material in important and historic collections. Part of these discussions also centred around science communication strategies, which Melissa is passionate about. Science communication, in the form of public engagement and outreach, is an important part of being a researcher and museum curator. Further highlights included research discussions about the extinct Quagga and Charles Darwin’s scientific collections at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM London), Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Library, the home of Charles Darwin (Down House) and Natural History Museum Tring (NHM Tring).

As a council member of the Zoological Society of Southern Africa (ZSSA) and the International Bryozoological Association (IBA), this program provided Melissa with a valuable opportunity to build new contacts, to share expertise, to identify strategic gaps in our knowledge, and to plan for collaborative research between institutions in the UK and SA.

Melissa would like to acknowledge and thank Andreia Salvador, Dr Giles Miller, Jon Ablett and Mary Spencer-Jones (NHM London), Hein van Gouw (NHM Tring), and Dr Olivia Fryman (English Heritage) for their effort and assistance. A special thanks to Dr Wayne Florence (Iziko Museums of South Africa), Mariapaola McGurk, Nobulali Dangazele (John Ellerman Foundation), Dr Andrea Waeschenbach and Hester van Schalkwyk (NHM London), Linda DaVolls (ZSL) and Imogen Vieten for the extra time they have contributed.

Examining a colony of Monoporella sp. encrusting on an oyster shell dated from the Cretaceous era, from Needs Camp, lower quarry, East London, South Africa (left). Melissa in the Hintze Hall, the largest public gallery in NHM London with a blue whale skeleton is suspended from the ceiling (right).

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1 Benthic communities live on the ocean floor and are largely composed of macroinvertebrates, such as annelids, mollusks, and crustaceans.
2 Cryptic species comprise two or more taxa that are grounded under a single name because they are more-or-less indistinguishable morphologically (Wei et al. 2022).

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