CASE STUDY: Co-creation and Building Trust around African Collections

1st March, 2022

Related content – introduction, overview and links to other case studies: Values-Led Leadership for Change

I ask, in any situation, “Who is in the room?”, and that leads you to notice who is not in the room. – J C Niala

Maasai visitors to the Horniman in February 2020. Courtesy of the Horniman Museum.


Since 2019 a group of museums has been working on the ‘Rebuilding Trust’ project which helps to reconnect community members with African collections held in UK museums. It is coordinated by JC Niala, Acting Keeper of Anthropology, Horniman Museum and Gardens. This case study on co-creation around African collections offers lessons for the wider heritage sector.

In her talk for the Rebuilding Heritage programme, JC described how this relatively new work was overtaken by the pandemic, but nevertheless found a route to success.

The Horniman Museum, showing its clocktower. Courtesy of Horniman Museum & Gardens. Photo: Andrew Lee

About this material

This resource is drawn from a webinar on co-creation delivered in partnership with Clore Leadership in the summer of 2021, with senior leaders from Bristol Beacon, the Youth Hostel Association and Horniman Museum and Gardens. You can watch the whole recording here.

Setting up a New Project in the Light of Restitution Debates

The full title of the project is ‘Rethinking relationships and building trust around African collections’. It was created in 2019 as a response to the Savoy Sarr report of the previous year – ‘ The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics’. This report had a powerful effect in museum circles in that it both advocated for the restitution of African objects and also had the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron. It has since led to a decisive shift, with European museums committing to significant object returns to museums in Africa – sometimes new-built for that purpose.

Because this shift happened in the public eye, the public wanted to know what would happen next, and how the wider museum community viewed the issue. In the UK, four museums with significant holdings decided to work together on co-creation around African collections. These were:

The Horniman Museum

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

The Pitt Rivers Oxford

The World Museum Liverpool

Led by JC, the group began to work collaboratively with community members from the African continent, including Masai people from Kenya and Tanzania.

The planned methodology was to discover how far the narratives about collection items held in these museums matched up with the oral histories of the originating communities. This approach was still relatively rare in the sector: provenance tends to be focused on collectors’ records and material already held in the archives. This project turned that assumption on its head and treated the oral history of those who created the material culture as being of at least equal consequence. Their experiences were likely to offer more insight than those who held the collections but were not experts on the culture which had created them.

With no idea of the huge upheaval due in 2020, the initial plan was for a big summit in June, with African participants alongside 100 diaspora community members – including those working in heritage, creatives, African Caribbean people and especially those local to the Horniman. Many would be meeting in person for the first time.

This meeting felt crucial in drawing together so many people who had insights to bring – and who were becoming part of the circle of influence in discussing these collections for the first time.

Interior of the World Gallery at the Horniman Museum. Courtesy of Horniman Museum & Gardens. Photo: Andrew Lee.

The Pandemic Arrives

When Covid-19 capsized these plans, it was the underlying values of the project that reshaped it. Initially, JC had no idea what would be possible, but when staff from the four museums came together to ask whether the project could continue, she said ‘yes’. She comments “as leaders, we must say yes before we are ready because people are looking for somebody in times of change to take responsibility”. Having taken that decision, however, she did not feel that she had to have all the answers. She consulted with all those involved, from the UK to Kenya and Nigeria – then also facing lockdown – to find out how to make it work.

‘Sindikiza’ – and How to Make People Feel Genuinely Welcomed in an Online Format

Above all, community partners said they wanted access to the collections. Museums have been digitising for ten to 15 years: the challenge was therefore to put these online collections into a format that made sense to users, not wreathed in the technical language of the UK museum sector.

In Swahili there is a word ‘Sindikiza’ which means to escort – in practical terms, this means if a guest comes to visit, you walk them to their car, or even back to their house. JC applied that concept to entering the digital museum collections – inviting and escorting people through them so that they would feel genuinely welcomed, and not lost on unfamiliar ground. This had a number of elements:

Making sure that everyone had the internet access needed to take part.

Developing a toolkit to allow community members to work with the materials online. This was formed out of questions that the communities formulated in group Zoom meetings themselves. There were also short films of curators directly asking people to come and work with the collections.

The project also had to creatively use networks to reach some of the people it wanted to involve. For instance, younger people working in cities in Africa were contacted in order to reach their older relatives who lived up-country, and who, although online, largely communicated by WhatsApp.

The results

Using the toolkit, 92 community members from Kenya and Nigeria each researched 15 objects in the collection, over a six-month period. This provided a really significant uplift to knowledge about the collections and built ongoing friendship and trust.

The success of the project means that museums and historic houses as far away as Canada are now using the toolkit to run their own projects. Crucially too, many of those who met via the Rebuilding Trust project are now running their own events, independent of JC’s work.

Resources for co-creation around African collections

Creating a museum toolkit for community members – In this article, JC describes how she created a toolkit both as a pdf and mobile app, describing how to navigate museum content online and explaining the terminology used in the museum profession that will look like ‘jargon’ to those outside it. The toolkit also included a short welcome for visitors, so that people would feel at home in the new online environment.

The view from Kenya – Margaret Akinyi Otieno, an Anthropologist, Research Scientist and Community Researcher at the National Museums of Kenya describes her role in the project, discussions of repatriation and how the online sharing of objects can help preserve cultural memory.

Embedding community knowledge into learning opportunities – How knowledge from the Rethinking Relationships project is being embedded into learning sessions with younger people.

A Luo headdress from Kenya, known locally as ligisa – such headdresses are often made by female craftsmen, and worn by married women with prominent status in society.

What Did JC and Her Team Learn?

“There is no otherwise”

If you work with trust and see your collaborators as people to work with, then answers will emerge.

Experimentation is one of the most useful things to arise out of the crisis. Ironically, in times of change, there’s sometimes less that can ‘go wrong’ because no-one knows what the answers should be.

Transparency is also vital – if you talk to people about the challenges you are facing in your own work context, it develops not only understanding, but a more equitable conversation.

 • It’s important to embrace the idea of ‘joy as resistance’ – to notice and celebrate positive moments if your work is swimming against the tide. JC remembers switching on Zoom early before the first group meeting, sitting in the meeting room wondering if anyone would turn up. She recalls seeing her screen gradually fill up with faces.

Finally, JC points to the Kenyan expression “there is no otherwise” – once you are committed to, and accepting of the situation you are in, then you have to make do with the circumstances that present themselves – and make them work. Despite the remote, rather than in-person connection, like many on the project she made new friends, and new professional contacts, who will continue to give impetus to this form of dialogue.

This article was written by Kate Smith of Goosegrass Culture.

Adapted from content delivered in partnership with:

  • Clore Leadership
  • JC Niala, Acting Keeper of Anthropology, Horniman Museum and Gardens
  • Sarah Robertson, Communications and Special Projects Director, Bristol Beacon
  • James Blake, Chief Executive, Youth Hostel Association

Follow the links below for a detailed case study from each speaker – or watch the original webinar here.

More Resources

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