Symposium: Powerful Stuff

Powerful Stuff: Colonial Objects in a Decolonising World

1pm-6:30pm, Thursday 5 December 2019
Sydney Smith Lecture Theatre, Doorway 1, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, Edinburgh EH8 9AG.
Convened by Stephen McDowall

Attendance is free but registration is essential.

The artefacts in our great museums are once again the focus of scrutiny. At a moment in which so much of Britain’s imperial past is being publically contested, demands for the return of colonial-era acquisitions are becoming ever louder. Across the Channel, such calls were given renewed impetus by French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that ‘African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums’, but Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, still wants us to re-imagine the encyclopaedic museum as ‘a new medium for multicultural understanding’.

There is no doubt that the landscape is changing. The declaration signed by the directors of 18 prominent museums in 2002, stating that ‘over time, objects so acquired—whether by purchase, gift, or portage—have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them’, now seems hopelessly naïve. Yet no consensus has emerged as to how collectors, museums and governments should deal with restitution demands. Ahdaf Soueif’s high-profile resignation from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees, citing among other things the museum’s silence over restitution, demonstrates how contentious such issues remain.

Under what circumstances should restitution demands be met? When should they be refused? How do the circumstances of the acquisition affect the debate? Is it possible to display colonial-era acquisitions in a manner that addresses some of the issues of decolonisation? How do collections beyond the public museum context—such as those of universities or the National Trust—fit in to the debate? What about human remains? What are our obligations as educators? Is it simply time to rethink the very existence of our Victorian-era institutions? And how will the study of material cultures adapt to a decolonising world?

This symposium, which marks the first anniversary of the founding of the Edinburgh Centre for Global History, brings together academics and museum professionals to think through these issues and more. Participants include:

Tom Cunningham (University of Edinburgh; African Studies)
Lawrence Dritsas (University of Edinburgh; History of Science)
Sarah Easterby-Smith (University of St Andrews)
Linda Fibiger (University of Edinburgh; Human Osteoarchaeology)
Corinne Fowler (University of Leicester/National Trust)
John Harries (University of Edinburgh; Social Anthropology)
Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers, Oxford)
Kate Hill (University of Glasgow)
Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln)
Jennifer Melville (National Trust for Scotland)
Andy Mills (Hunterian, Glasgow)
Kalathmika Natarajan (University of Edinburgh; History)
Stana Nenadic (University of Edinburgh; History)
Raj Pal (National Trust)
Joan Smith (University of Edinburgh College of Art)
Giovanna Vitelli (Hunterian, Glasgow)

Tea and coffee will be served, and the symposium will conclude with a short drinks reception.

Workshop: Another World?

Workshop:  Another World?  Concepts and Methods in East Africa’s Global Histories

27 September 2019, 11am-4pm, Room 2.05 Geography (Old Infirmary)

Registration required (spaces limited) – please email


In the framework of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘Another World? East Africa and the Global 1960s’, the Edinburgh Centre for Global History invites scholars based in Edinburgh and those at nearby and partner institutions to participate in a day of roundtable-style discussions on the problems, questions, and ambitions of researching and writing global histories of Eastern Africa in the (mid-)twentieth century, especially with reference to textual cultures. Our hope is to build a collaborative network of scholars around the existing project, including those working with similar methods or on similar questions using different methods, and thus to make the most of the potential for engaging with one another’s work.

As ‘Another World’ has propositioned, East Africa offers a challenge to narratives that assume a linear trajectory in the history of twentieth century globalisation. East Africa’s global connections were powerful and real at independence. But by the early 1970s, utopian ideas of a globally connected African future had been destroyed by introverted nationalism.

Printed material and written correspondence were crucial vehicles for global thinking in East Africa and as such are one powerful way to trace how a vision of a connected postcolonial world shattered. They were vehicles of connection, through which links were forged and affinities were imagined, and of disconnection, in which incommensurable difference was asserted and networks ruptured. Over the course of the workshop, we would like to address some of the methodological and conceptual questions that arise from these assertions.

11:00-11:15  Welcome and introductions
11:15-12:45  Roundtable 1: Text, networks and materiality
12:45-13:30  Lunch (provided)
13:30-15:00  Roundtable 2: Thinking globally
15:00-16:00  Roundtable 3: Concluding reflections and ways forward

Roundtable 1: Text, networks and materiality

What do networks of global affinity between authors and readers look like? Is the unequal and uneven nature of ‘global networks’ visible in textual sources? (How) can we recover from textual sources the materiality of their production: bodies, technology, and the natural and built environment? Or, where should we look to see how the ‘material world’ and the ‘world of ideas’ interact? Where is the colonial and postcolonial state in this? What is gained (and lost) from an ‘East Africa’ perspective compared to a focus on a national space, a specific ‘borderland’ or a smaller locality? Where, then, are East Africa’s edges?

Opened by:

  • Emily Brownell (University of Edinburgh), Tracing the transnational in urban materiality through texts
  • Josh Doble (University of Edinburgh), Postcolonial slang in ‘Ode to the Kenya Cowboy’
  • Anna Adima (University of York), Women’s writing in 1960s East Africa
  • Tom Cunningham (University of Edinburgh), Interwar Gikuyu ethnic nationalism and the journal Muigwithania
  • Ismay Milford (University of Edinburgh), The making of the journalism profession

Each speaking for 5-10 minutes on an aspect of their own research, with reference to some of the questions above. Followed by open discussion.

Roundtable 2: Thinking globally

Black cosmopolitanism? Cosmopolitanism from below? Or from the middle? Where is the overlap between cosmopolitanism and internationalism? Are these worldviews, modes of expression, or practice? Are they necessarily utopian? Does an increasing engagement with one’s place in the globe invite communality across pre-existing divides, or in fact invite conflict? Can a focus on textual cultures help to recover African ‘nationalisms’ (as Miles Larmer and Baz Lecocq have recently described them) ‘as a process intimately bound up with morally constituted concerns about the nature of society and how to live a good life’? What is the role of religion? What in any of this is specific to East Africa and/or to the historical process of decolonisation?

Opened by:

  • George Roberts (University of Cambridge) Decolonisation of Comoros
  • Daniel Heathcote (University of Edinburgh) Kenyan urban spaces and the body
  • Gerard McCann (University of York) East African literary institutions and global networks, 1960s-70s
  • Dan Branch (University of Warwick) Nairobi in the Era of Decolonisation: A Global City?
  • Emma Hunter (University of Edinburgh) Tanzania’s twentieth-century global history

Each speaking for 5-10 minutes on an aspect of their own research, with reference to some of the questions above. Followed by open discussion.

Roundtable 3: Concluding reflections and ways forward

Opened by Emily Callaci, with comments on the day’s discussions.

Followed by open discussion.

Optional recommended reading

Emily Callaci, Street Archives and City Life: Popular Intellectuals in Postcolonial Tanzania (London: Duke University Press, 2017).
Derek R. Peterson and Emma Hunter, ‘Print Culture in Colonial Africa’, in Derek R. Peterson, Emma Hunter, and Stephanie Newell (eds.), African Print Cultures: Newspapers and Their Publics in the Twentieth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).
Afro-Asian Networks Research Collective, ‘Manifesto: Networks of Decolonization in Asia and Africa’, Radical History Review, 2018 (2018).

Call for Papers: Thinking without Modernity

Thinking without Modernity: Perspectives from the Premodern Globe

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Hosted by the Edinburgh Centre for Global History, School of History Classics and Archaeology

In the context of his work on decolonial praxis, Walter Mignolo wrote that one of the major challenges to decolonisation is thinking without modernity. An imperative in Mignolo’s work on decoloniality, there is much to be gained more broadly from discussing how we think beyond the paradigm of western modernity. I’m seeking talks of 10-20 minutes which respond to the question: how can research and teaching on the premodern globe help us to think without modernity?

The connected challenges of ecological disaster, persistence of colonialism, and the rise of the far right are currently pressing concerns within the academy. Those who work on premodern societies have an important contribution to make to discussions on these issues. This is not because — as the term ‘premodern’ would seem to imply — we work at present beyond the bounds of a western European modernity, but rather because we engage every day with the problem of how such an embedded paradigm might distort our and our students’ understandings of the societies with which we work. These are, moreover, societies that did not (always) think with modernity or ascribe to their ‘modernities’ the same qualities as the western model.

This workshop aims to bring together the ideas that those researching and teaching the premodern globe might have on the above. Talks are welcome from scholars working within any discipline and might constitute a short paper but need not be that formal — vague ideas and anarchic formats welcome. I interpret ‘premodern’ broadly; talks might examine, for instance, how ‘premodern’ as a label has contributed to the epistemic colonisation of indigenous thought beyond imperial endeavour.

If interested, please send abstracts of 100-200 words to Kirsty Day ( by Friday 22 March.

Confirmed external participant: Amanda Power, St Catherine’s College, Oxford


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