The Pitt Rivers is a pioneer of ‘visual repatriation’ – returning photographs to the far-flung communities where they were taken. Olivia Gordon finds out why.

By Olivia Gordon

Anthropologists at Oxford have done ‘fieldwork’ in societies around the world for more than 100 years, and museums like the Pitt Rivers have collected large numbers of photographs of people from many communities. But in a post-colonial world, what should be done with such photographic collections? Since the mid-Nineties, anthropologists at Oxford and elsewhere have started giving photos back to the communities where they were taken, in a process known as ‘visual repatriation’.

The people photographed were often seen in colonial times as representatives of a culture — curiosities to study in a Western museum. Being ‘discovered’ and ‘studied’ by the West was in many cases part of a traumatic history of suffering for indigenous people. Returning pictures — sometimes to the subjects themselves, sometimes to their descendants or their community — is about recognising that these were individual people, with their own important lives, and also acknowledging that painful colonial history.

‘There is an inherent moral imperative for ethnographic museums to open up their collections and connect them to the communities from which they originate,’ says Dr Chris Morton, curator of the Pitt Rivers’ photograph and manuscript collections, who has been involved in much of Oxford’s visual repatriation work.

Recent Oxford visual repatriation projects have reconnected photo collections to communities in Canada, the US, Australia, Kenya, Botswana, and Cameroon, and next on the list is a community in South Sudan.

The reactions of recipients can be a cultural lesson in themselves. ‘When reconnecting images of ancestors to their descendants today, it is the emotion of homecoming, of reconnection to family, that dominates the response,’ says Dr Morton. ‘This experience can involve singing, touching the portrait, taking it to the ancestor’s grave, and other activities that return the ancestor to the community.’

By way of anthropology

In Adelaide in 2013, Dr Chris Morton of the Pitt Rivers met a descendant of James Wanganeen, whose portrait, taken around 1867, is one of the earliest Aboriginal portraits in the museum’s collection. Wanganeen was an Aboriginal member of the Poonindie Mission in Port Lincoln, South Australia. His descendent, Lynnette Wanganeen (James’s great great-great-granddaughter, pictured above with Dr Morton), still lives in the area and, says Dr Morton, ‘was extremely pleased to finally put a face to the name of a revered ancestor’.

In 2016 Dr Morton and former Oxford anthropology DPhil Dr Chris Low reconnected a San (!Xo) community with a collection of physical anthropology photographs taken by the Oxford anthropologist Dr Joe Weiner on an expedition to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana in 1958. Pictured here is /Kaisee, one of three individuals originally photographed by Dr Weiner who are still alive. Dr Low was able to meet her and give her a copy. Dr Low recorded many names relating to people in the photographs and their responses to the collection, and what they would like to do with it, if anything, in the future. (The Khoisan language features a range of clicks denoted by !, / and other characters.)

By way of anthropologyOxford’s Professor David Zeitlyn has been working with Cameroonian photographer Jacques Toussele to create a digital archive of his old studio negatives. In conjunction with the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, more than 45,000 images have been scanned, and in some cases it has been possible to track down some of the people in the images. One of those people tracked down is a former body builder who used to perform exhibitions of strength under the nickname of ‘Mauvais Grains le Samson’, who had his portrait taken by Toussele. He is now the chief of a village 50km from Mbouda, Cameroon, where Toussele’s studio was located. In 2011 Prof. Zeitlyn was able to find ‘Mauvais Grains le Samson’ (right) and give him a new copy of the photo from the negative scanned by the British Library team. The original print had not survived.

A portrait of Bonaiya Dida was taken by anthropologist Paul Baxter at a Gubbisa naming ceremony for a first-born son in Marsabit, northern Kenya, 1952–3. In 2010, Oxford anthropologist Dr Neil Carrier and collaborator Kimo Quaintance took copies back to Marsabit. Word of the collection’s return spread and Bonaiya’s son Guyo Bonaiya Dida was one of the people who came to the local hotel to see the images. Dr Morton says: ‘It was a moving event. Guyo made sure to adjust his headdress to mirror that of his long-departed father in the original photo.’ As thanks for bringing back the photographs of that ceremony, the Oxford team were invited to attend a Gubbisa ceremony in 2010.

The Pitt Rivers Museum’s Professor Laura Peers has pioneered work with historic photograph collections and communities in north America for many years. During a project in 1999 at the Red Lake Tribal Cultural Centre in Minnesota, she worked with Red Lake Ojibwe tribal members and Minnesota Historical Society curator Marcia Anderson. One of our images shows her, together with an Ojibwe community group, Professor Peers, examining photographs taken by Oxford anthropologist Beatrice Blackwood in 1924.

Another of the modern photographs shows Charles Obewa and his son hold a framed portrait of his father Ezekiel Onyango in 2007. A copy of the photograph, originally taken by Oxford anthropologist Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard in 1936, was given to Mr Obewa as part of a project to mount local exhibitions from the Pitt Rivers’ photo collections in small village locations in Nyanza Province, Western Kenya. These exhibitions, the result of a collaboration between Dr Chris Morton at the Pitt Rivers and a Kenyan colleague, Gilbert Oteyo, led the team to several families connected to the photographs in the area.


All images reproduced with permission of Pauline Cockrill, David Zeitlyn, and other photographers as credited.


By Miriam Griffn

I trust you have retained negatives of the photographs you are returning. Archives have histories too that people like to uncover.

By Robert John Nic...

So good to see this. In today's environment of photography and the web it's easy to share culture without possessing it. I'm sue these mean a lot more to them than outsiders. Now on to returning all the artifacts from Greece.

By Eric Edwards

Have copies, digital or otherwise, been made of the repatriated photographs and kept by the museum?
Moreover, have all arrangements been made for the preservation and curation of the returned materials been established? The photographic collection held by the Pitt Rivers Museum is unique and one can only hope that it is not going to be redistributed or have its protection compromised.

By Peter Hulse

Does this also apply to anthropological studies of members of London clubs, or rag-and-bone men in Manchester? Or is it, as the article implies, racially based?

By Oliver Harris

This seems like a commendable and worthwhile exercise - but my hackles are raised a little by the way it's being slightly sanctimoniously spun as an act of 'repatriation'. As is quite clear from the body of the article - but not from the headline or lead paragraph - the material being given to these communities and descendants comprises digital copies of images, while the negatives, originals and masters remain in repositories in the UK. That is surely as it should be, and I applaud what is being done; but please don't present this as some sort of serious contribution to the minefield of the cultural restitution debate.

By joanna goldswor...

My father was in the Colonial administration in Kenya 1939 - 63 and I grew up moving around to different regions. We had a 'houseboy' named Onyango and often servants moved with us.
I am immensely touched by this action by Pitt Rivers - always a wonderful museum. My parents lived in Marsabit in their very early years, and the portrait of Dido is very fine. I live in Australia, where there is also increasing recognition of original peoples.
Thank you! (Jo Wolff from St Anne's 1960-63

By Terence Hay-Edie

This is of course an interesting exercise in the "social life of things", in this case reproductions of material artifacts which can be duplicated and copied. I would be interested to know the extent of the images being transferred back to the communities: are these only portraits or potentially a whole suite of images of material culture, landscapes and the like? In the latter case, some sort of local digital database could be foreseen to assist in indigenous forms of documentation of their own resources.

By James Young

I have only to say that Oliver Harris expressed perfectly what I wished to say.

By vibha


To above comments... of course the repatriation is of positive images printed from scans of photos and negatives...