The new state of South Sudan is best known for its deeply troubled history; from enslavement and colonisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the prolonged civil wars that led both to its independence in 2011 and to continued post-independence conflicts. This history of violence and victimhood poses both analytical and practical challenges to scholars and nation-builders alike: how can we better understand the interactions and strategies pursued by people even in violent contexts? How can we study and celebrate the creativity, resilience and reciprocities that also run through South Sudanese history? How can we gain a richer picture of the region’s past, one that reaches beyond deterministic narratives of conflict and ethnic division?
One resource for doing this lies unexploited in our midst. European museums house an estimated 20,000 objects, originally acquired by European travellers, traders, missionaries and officials in the Southern Sudanese region in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. These items range from household objects, jewellery, weaponry and musical instruments to large, visually striking figurative statues. They are now housed in locations as diverse as St Petersburg, Rome and Kent. Many of the collections have rich supporting documentation – including accounts of expeditions, diaries, photographs and correspondence concerning acquisitions by museums. Yet they have not yet been the subject of extensive comparative enquiry.
‘New explorations into South Sudanese museum collections in Europe’ is an international research network investigating this huge but largely untapped resource for advancing understandings of South Sudan’s history, global connections and creative arts. Not only do these collections provide new sources on the region’s past, they also expose complex narratives of interaction, in both its violent and more peaceful aspects. Exploring material connections and reciprocities will make new intellectual advances on the history of South Sudan possible and allow us to rethink this history with potential for significant intellectual and social impacts.
The network brings together academics from different disciplines with museum practitioners and heritage stakeholders to develop a research agenda on South Sudanese museum collections across Europe. It is the first of its kind to connect these dispersed collections with South Sudanese communities, addressing not only the collections’ academic significance, but also their potential contribution to developing more inclusive understandings of South Sudanese identity. These objects can reveal histories of economic and cultural exchange within the region that has become South Sudan. Through their acquisition, export and display in Europe, they also embody the often violent and extractive incorporation of this region into imperial and transnational economies. They offer the potential for deeper and more nuanced understandings of how people in the Upper Nile region negotiated new trading opportunities as well as the coercive predation through which these objects were acquired.
Through three workshops with international participants, the network will make tangible steps towards a major programme of research on the collections, involving institutions in both Europe and South Sudan. It will serve as a unique international hub for museums with significant South Sudanese collections, facilitating new comparative perspectives on as yet disconnected collections and histories. A key priority is to involve South Sudanese in this research process, while providing an important opportunity for current curators and researchers to reflect on the past and present display of these collections, their reception by European audiences and the narratives they project.
Image: Part of the Giovanni Miani collection from South Sudan at the Museum of Natural History, Venice (Italy).