Whose Heritage? Rethinking the West Dean Collection

In late 2019, the Collections Team started working on a project to re-evaluate how the collections are displayed throughout the Historic House. The first phase of this is currently exploring the cultural legacy of colonialism at West Dean. Working with academic staff, students, and external subject specialists, the project discusses ethical curation, challenges existing and embedded curatorial practices, and aims to lay the framework for a new approach to collections interpretation and display.  

The first stage of the project has included a review of the African collection which comprises a wide range of ethnographic objects, natural history, and archival documents. Our research has already revealed untold narratives that cover a period of colonial expansion in Africa, particularly in Sudan. To further our research we have started working with external subject specialists in leading UK institutions who are also reviewing their ethnographic collections and, after lockdown, we will be working directly with African communities and researchers, as well as Africans in diaspora. 

As part of the review we asked a number of questions about the objects in the Collection - Where do they come from? ​How did they come to be in the West Dean Collection? and How does the method of display communicate their history accurately and sensitively? These questions will lead to changes around the Historic House, updated displays, and new interpretation. 

One of the objects currently being researched is a Sudanese drum. The plaque on the front helps to answer our first question – where is the object from? If you can not make it out from the images below, the plaque reads:  One of Osman Digna’s War Drums, captured at Tamai and presented by General Kitchener, December 2 1886.  So we know that the drum belonged to Osman Digna, a highly regarded commander in the Mahdist Wars, and the plaque is thought to refer to the battle of Tamai in Sudan, fought between British and Mahdist armies in March 1884. 

Our next question,  how did the drum come to be in the collection? Can be answered through research in the College Archives. In 1886, Frank James (the uncle of  West Dean College Founder Edward James) travelled the Red Sea and stopped at the Sudanese port town of Suakin, near to Tamai, where he met General Kitchener and was presented with the Drum.  We know this as the archive holds Frank James’s diaries where he wrote a day-to-day account of his travels. These date from 1877 to 1890 and together with his published works, William James’s photography, and maps of expeditions, provide a hugely significant resource for the research and interpretation of the Collection
In reviewing the display of many of the African items, one can quickly realise that the cultural heritage of the West Dean Collection has been impoverished over time by the neutrality with which the objects have been presented. Without any research and interpretation the current displays reinforce the colonial perspective that we are trying to address. The Whose Heritage? project provides us with the opportunity for us to ask questions about how the contemporary use and interpretation of collections intersect with broader questions around an object’s origins and the responsibility that the arts and heritage sector has to decolonise their collections and interrogate embedded practices. 
The outcome of the review was to remove the drum from display whilst we document, research, and conduct a condition report (this will take place in the Conservation workshops in the next academic year). This will lead on to discussions around new display solutions that acknowledges this objects history and ensures that it is discussed and approached sensitively in the future. 

The Edward James Archive

If you would like to learn more about this project please get in touch by emailing Sarah Hughes at [email protected] 

The Edward James Archive is currently undergoing a cataloguing project; the completion of which will improve the search ability of the Edward James Archive and, in due course, enable researchers to have greater access to it. This significant development will benefit both students at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation and the wider national and international research community.