Pitt Rivers Museum Luo Visual History

Paro Manene (Paro Ndalo Machon ):

Rethinking Luo History Through Photograph Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum,
University of Oxford.


The University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum holds a sizeable collection of material culture and photographs relating to the Luo of Kenya. The photograph collection, mostly taken by E. E. Evans-Pritchard in 1936 and earlier administrators such as C. W. Hobley, contains a very rich ethnographic record including visual information on settlement and building, as well as aspects of social history and the natural environment. Most of the scenes captured in these photographs no longer exist in Luoland due to rapid economic change since the colonial period.

During the past two years I have carried out research in Luo Country to try and establish the complex sets of relationships that form the background to the collections in Oxford. Although relationships between the photographers and the Luo community themselves are evident at some levels in the photographs, it seems that there has been no such relationship over time with the institution where the photographs ended up in Oxford. One of the major aims of this project then is to foster a new set of relationships between these photographs as museum objects, and the communities where they began their lives.


Current thought about the role of an ethnographic museum in the 21 st Century is that of "contact zones", proposed by the anthropologist James Clifford. This idea aims at developing and promoting new relationships, and fostering existing relationships, between Western museums and communities whose cultures are represented within them. As a member of the Luo community, I feel that this notion of the museum as a relationship through culture is likely to be a very productive one. However, the benefits extend beyond the transformation of the role of the museum, since the collections will enable African archaeologists and historians such as myself to research our past in a unique way. In a more personal way, I have already discovered some Luo families whose grandparents were photographed by Evans-Pritchard in 1936 and now have the opportunity to obtain the first portraits of their loved ones, that they never imagined existed.

This project intends to:

  • To show a selection of the images in a number of easily-accessible venues to as wide a range of the local community as possible, and to also make available for viewing a catalogue of the whole collection in Oxford.
  • To present copies of photographs to families who have identified their relatives within them, and to research and document this process of visual 'homecoming' in terms of its meanings for those involved.
  • To document responses to the exhibition by those visiting it, and record any additional information that may enhance the Pitt Rivers Museum's documentation about the photographs.
  • To carry out field research by visiting the locations and communities photographed and interviewing certain social groups, such as elders, about their responses to them.
  • To present a catalogue of the collections to Kisumu Museum and Oginga Odinga Museum and Mausoleum, and to present copies of any photographs exhibited for the future use by Luo researchers and the wider community.
  • To establish new institutional relationships between local museums and the Pitt Rivers Museum, and to work collaboratively on further projects and facilitate research. The Pitt Rivers Museum is currently building a new research centre, due to open in late 2006, that will enable new collaborative research projects.