Stanford’s museums have one of the country’s largest collections of African art and cultural objects. The pieces include jewelry, masks, pottery, metalwork, and beadwork from across the continent. Yet only a small number of pieces have been displayed or even catalogued by the University. Most are in storage, some untouched since the nineteenth century when collected by Jane Stanford during her travels. For many of these objects, even basic provenance information (the history of the object? where did it come from? who created it? how did it come to be at Stanford?) is still missing.
This Introductory Seminar offers you the opportunity to contribute to the University and wider academic community’s knowledge base by researching the provenance history of individual objects in the Africa collections. Each of you will select a single object to research (identifying from a preselected pool of uncatalogued pieces). Working closely with myself and relevant specialists at Stanford and further afield, you will create a written history of your chosen object by researching its origins, ownership, and movement. By “telling”—writing the history of your object—you will be helping pave the way for its eventual exhibition to the wider community—the “show” of this class’s title.
Yet your work will go beyond merely supplying this crucial missing information. You will also reflect upon how creating a provenance history opens the door to important questions of agency and power.
Your stories will chart the extraction of African cultural resources from the African continent by white European and/or American individuals and institutions, such as Stanford. You will see how provenance research (including your own) is foundational to any effort to repatriate African objects to their places of origin. Along these lines, one of our class guests will be Stanford’s own Heritage Services office, that deals with the repatriation of objects in the University’s collection to indigenous communities.
"I was born and raised in Southern Africa (born in Zimbabwe, and raised in the kingdom of Eswatini), and all of my family are from that region. My conviction is that studying Southern Africa as a white historian must necessarily involve a recognition of my own privilege and my family’s embeddedness within a colonial past that has benefitted white residents of Southern Africa. In my ongoing work on knowledge production in Africa (including the role that museums play in this) I look critically at issues of race, representation, authenticity, legitimacy, and gatekeeping. I sincerely hope you will join me in this journey through a shifting and contested landscape of knowledge and museum curatorship."