(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Southern African Beaded Girdle, UCL Ethnography Collections, late 19th/early 20th century.
Content Warning: The citations for this essay contain racist language. We do not condone the use of this language.
How does the field of anthropology, particularly the act of collection of an object, put into the context of an ethnographic collection, contribute to the perpetuation of racial categories, hierarchies, and stereotypes? The answer is tied to how the social construct of race developed in reaction to the colonisation of Africa.
Housed in the UCL Ethnographic collection is an intricately beaded "Isigege," what can be described roughly as a Zulu "girdle" or "pubic ornament". Collected at an unknown date in the early 20th century, this object remains in the collection labeled, in the most shockingly nonchalant manner, with an extremely offensive racial slur. One so objectionable, it is labeled officially as hate speech and prohibited in South Africa under the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000. Yet such labeling remaining in museum collections and catalogues is not uncommon.
So why were objects such as the intricate beadwork of Zulu speaking peoples from South Africa labeled using this slur in such an official and academic setting?
The reason is that Zulu beadwork came to represent Zulu tradition and identity, and it was the role of museums as a tool of colonial empires to make sure such identity held a particular place in society.
The rise of migrant labor among South African men in the 19th and 20th centuries meant that traditional, rural cultural practices were kept alive mostly by Indigenous women (Nettleton, 2014, p.341). For this reason, the face of "tradition" became female, and modes of production traditionally dominated by women became associated with resistance against colonialism. Beadwork, traditionally exclusively produced by women, became a noteworthy symbol of Zulu distinction from the imposed cultures of Dutch and British colonialism (Nettleton, 2014, p.348).
The maintenance of "tradition" in the face of colonialism is never a neutral act. It gains political dimensions when material conditions change, and there is an imposition of forces which make the perpetuation of traditions difficult, if not impossible. It is then that traditions change, as they only can, but the seeds of continuity that remain in cultural practices gain renewed meaning. This meaning is an act of resistance against destruction (Nettleton, 2014, p.343).
The other side of this political divide, the forces, and the people behind those forces, which aim to destroy the traditions of colonised peoples, adopt similar meaning in the seeds of continuity that remain in tradition forced into destruction. As with the indigenous peoples, these seeds become symbolic of resistance to change, resistance to colonialism. For colonists, this is obviously a problem, so the implications of resistance are flipped, and turned negative. For colonists, perpetuation of tradition must be framed as symbolic of backwardness and inferiority if they are to maintain supremacy (Boram-Hays, 2005, p.48).
So when an example of intricate beadwork produced at the height of colonial oppression enters a museum setting, this beadwork is already political. If the political agenda of colonisers is to be perpetuated, the politically charged artefact must be spoken of in a derogatory fashion. Thus, museum objects such as the Isigege in UCL’s Ethnographic Collection can be, and readily is, labeled with an ethnic slur.
The use of the slur is essentially connected with the legacy of colonialism. The slur originates from Arabic, a word originally meaning simply “non-Muslim” (Baderoon, 2004, p. 2). The term likely arrived to sub-Saharan Africa with the predominantly Muslim slaves and servants of Dutch colonists, though some evidence of its use by Arabic-speaking traders along east African coast of the Indian Ocean before the arrival of Dutch colonists (Baderoon, 2004, p.3). Regardless, the adoption of the term by non-Muslim colonists such as the Dutch and the British indicates the word had adopted a new meaning, becoming a slur used primarily against black-skinned indigenous Africans in the setting of colonised Southern Africa. The use of the slur in Apartheid South Africa retains this meaning (Baderoon, 2004, p.3).
The use of this slur in museum collections indicates that museum professionals and official collection practices perpetuated, and even helped create, the negative connotations of particular peoples practices and traditions. This is indicated in the use of the slur by museum exhibitions in the 19th century that introduced the supposed culture of Zulu peoples to the wider European public. Such examples can be seen in advertisements for Wombwell's Royal Windsor Castle Menagerie (Wellcome Collection, 1861), St. George's Gallery (Wellcome Collection, 1850), and Cosmorama Rooms (Wellcome Collection, 1853-4). Moreover, the continued presence of the slur in museum catalogues (such as is present in the UCL Ethnographic Collections) continues to portray the slur, and the categories it represents, as legitimate.
The creation of racial distinctions is intimately tied with the use of racialised discourse. This particular slur conflates people and things separated by time (pre-colonisation)(Baderoon, 2004, p.3), space (‘wild’ versus ‘tamed’ land) (Baderoon, 2004, p.7), and even species, as indigenous sub-Saharan people were not even considered to be human (Baderoon, 2004, p.6). Such language relates to the broader museological practice of making difference which this exhibition describes.
In contrast, the creation of beadwork by Zulu peoples is an act of identifying nuance of status and identity within the Zulu Kingdom (Boram-Hays, 2005, p.49). Each pattern, each color, each bead communicates particular ideas and identities. The categorisation of beadwork by a simple racial slur erases nuances of identity communicated by Zulu beadwork.
By inventing and imposing a new, racially based category on cultural objects, museum collections fail to record something which is scientific and objective, but instead create propaganda for colonialism and imperialism.
By Sophia Fuller
Baderoon, Gabeba. 2004. The Provenance of the term ‘Kafir’ in South Africa and the notion of Beginning. Available at: http://www.cilt.uct.ac.za/usr/cci/publications/aria/download_issues/2004/2004_MS4.pdf
Boram-Hays, Carol. 2005. Borders of Beads: Questions of Identity in the Beadwork of the Zulu-Speaking People. African Arts 38(2): 38-49 & 92-93. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3338083?refreqid=excelsior%3A0dc570615d342c3b44320495b5%2003e0ee&seq=1#metadata_info _tab_contents.
Nettleton, Anitra. 2014. Women, Beadwork and Bodies: The Making and Marking of Migrant Liminality in South Africa, 1850–1950, African Studies 73(3): 341-364. DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2014.962874
Wellcome Collection c.1850. Undated handbill. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ g5ywjrsc/items.
Wellcome Collection c.1853-4. Zulu Kafirs. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ rm9nw2c6/items?canvas=1.
Wellcome Collection. 1861. Important notice! Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ xed3s9ac/items.
LDUGC-040ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Hair Colour Gauge, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1905.
Far too often we avert our eyes and ears from unpleasant history. Claim it long gone or....
LDUAC-UCL1623ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Ceramic head, “Ceramic figurine, head of an African male”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
This figurine is from the Hellenistic period and was collected by Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson in the early 20th Century....
LDUCZ-Z490ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Mounted Taxidermy Orangutan, Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, 1917
This taxidermied juvenile male Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) owned by the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy....
LDUCE-UC33278ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, date of manufacture unknown, purchased or excavated early 20th century.
The racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, is a terracotta statue head, possibly made from Nile Silt clay....