Articles of dress, domestic utensils, arms and other curiosities: Excavating early nineteenth century collections from southern Africa at the London Missionary Society museum

01 Jun 2018

The stimulus for this paper arises from a comparison between missionary collecting in two of the earliest mission fields established by the London Missionary Society: the Pacific (1797), and Southern Africa (1799). As the location to which a large number of Polynesian ‘idols’ were sent following conversion to Christianity, the LMS museum (1814 -1910) has gained an important place in Pacific historiography, but the same cannot be said for southern Africa. This paper explores the significance of the LMS museum as a site of deposition for material that originated in missionary encounters and exchanges in southern Africa during the first third of the nineteenth century, and its potential to provide a source of material evidence that complements the texts associated with the documentary archive, but also the material remains associated with the former mission site, the usual focus for historical and archaeological engagements. Particular attention is given to material associated with John Campbell (1766-1840) and Robert Moffat (1795-1883), who travelled extensively in the region and subsequently published accounts of their journeys. Re-situating particular museum artefacts within the specific circumstances of these missionary encounters enables them to stand, not as exemplars of African cultural practices prior to European contact, but rather as forms of evidence that chart historical transformations in material culture across the southern African contact zone.