A wide range of scholarly inquiries have engaged with how museums all over the world deal with societal issues and the way the public interacts with the museum as a space of transaction and knowledge production. In Malawi, only a small proportion of literature deals with the museums and their relationship to the wider understanding of the country’s history and the question of nationalism. However, as modern museums are transforming and reconfiguring themselves in dealing with histories of collection and calls for repatriation of ethnographic objects and human remains from their European counterparts are being made, there is no scholarly work or a nuanced representation on these issues for the Museums of Malawi. This study engages with a biography of a collection to think about museums, nationalism and the politics of repatriation.
In consideration of the above, the aim of this project is to examine the “Victor and Theodore Cox collection” that sits both in the stores and display cabinets of the Malawi museum. The study looks at the ways in which the collection came into being in 1892. In so doing, the study will locate the place of the Cox collection in a wider framework of the making and remaking of Museums of Malawi. The objects in this collection will be used as the main archive. The study aims to examine this “archive” and interrogate the reasons the Museums of Malawi uses 1941 (the time the collection entered the space of Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington) to claim the starting point of its (the Museum of Malawi’s) own collection. In regard to the issues surrounding repatriation, the research attempts to explore the politics behind this process. It aims to investigate closely how the objects found their way to the USA and then how they returned to Malawi. In this way, the research aims at interrogating the repatriation process by focusing on the back story of the negotiations. It was through this collection of a hundred pieces that it was claimed Malawians could identify themselves as a nation. It is useful in this research to explore the lives of the Cox brothers. Little is known about their lives before coming to Malawi, for instance. This mini-thesis aims at understanding their relationship to the locals, and to establish how they acquired the collection. By examining the life on the plantations the study aims to provide a more nuanced account of the biography of the collection and its collectors. Therefore, the central question that the project will focus on is: “What changes in meaning has the Theodore and Victor Cox collection undergone through the years between 1892 and 2015?”