Who Cares? The Material Heritage of British Missions in Africa and the Pacific, and its future

  • Jacobs, Karen (Principal Investigator)
  • Wingfield, Christpoher (Co-Investigator)

Project Details


Britain was one of the most significant sources of missionaries to Africa and the Pacific during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While histories of missionary activity are matters of ongoing importance in these now strongly Christian parts of the world, attitudes to Christianity in Britain, and its history of missionary activity are increasingly ambivalent. However, a great deal of material heritage associated with early missionary encounters remains in Britain, where it is widely neglected. This material includes:

* items collected as evidence of pre-Christian religious practices, many of which are now regarded as rare and major works of art
* gifts received by missionaries from local people
* the personal possessions and portraits of famous missionaries
* relics of the ships used by missionaries to reach their destinations
* material, such as collecting boxes, that were used to appeal to supporters in Britain

This project aims to create a conversation between academics, museum curators and representatives of missionary societies, as well as heritage organizations in Africa and the Pacific to establish who cares about this heritage in the present, and who should care for it in the future.

Three workshops will be held during 2012 at the National Museum of Scotland, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. The project is a partnership between researchers at these three organizations, as well as the Museum Ethnographers Group, a charity that exists to 'Make connections through world collections'. As a recognized 'Subject-Specialist Network' in the museum's sector, the Museum Ethnographers Group will use its connections to influence museum practice in relation to the cataloging, conservation and exhibition of collections of missionary material.

Each of the workshops will include a presentation by an international academic researcher, as well as by knowledgeable museum curators and missionary organisations about their experiences of working with missionary material. These presentations will be the starting points for a series of structured conversations about the future of collections of missionary material in Britain, and the best ways of making them available for study by international researchers, as well as those in Britain and overseas for whom they have a significant value as items of heritage.

The National Museum of Scotland will be opening an exhibition on the life and legacy of the famous missionary David Livingstone towards the end of this project, organized in collaboration with colleagues from Museums of Malawi in Africa. We expect the opening of this exhibition to be an important moment when the conversations that begin during these workshops can receive a more public airing in the media.
Effective start/end date23/10/1222/07/13


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £33,133.00