Every May, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of Natural History take part in the annual Museums at Night festival, inviting visitors in for an after hours spectacular! As part of this May's event, Storyteller JC Niala, has created a special performance in response to the story of Mekatilili wa Menza, a Giriama woman who led a successful rebellion against the British Colonial forces around the time of WW1. Read JC's blog post to find out why she has chosen to share Mekatilili wa Menza's story inside the Museum. You can book your free tickets to see JC's performance here: https://bit.ly/2HyOVDN
|Pitt Rivers Museum lit up for an after hours event © Pitt Rivers Museum|
Telling stories from things
I love museums, to me they are like walking into a visual library. As well as looking at all the interesting objects, I am always curious about their stories. If I see a woven basket for example, I cannot help but think about the life of the person that made it. Did they make it to use everyday? As a gift? I find myself looking for signs on the object that might give me clues as to the maker’s intention and also to its use.
1945.10.143: 'Bells for tying to legs when dancing at Ngomas' © Pitt Rivers Museum
An object from the collections that will inspire JC's story
I always think about the people who are connected to the objects – especially because they are not there. I do this the most at the Pitt Rivers Museum because although it is an amazing collection, I can’t help but wonder exactly how all those objects were collected. During colonial times, there was often a power imbalance that meant the collector had access to things that were not meant to end up in a museum.
I spend a lot of time in the Pitt Rivers Museum thinking about the things that are there now and what processes led to them being there. Because I am a storyteller, I like the fact that there is not much information on the gallery labels. It doesn’t get in the way of my imagination and allows me to be a detective. It also means that unlike with other museums, I study the object in detail rather than walk around just reading labels as can happen.
1906.34.32: 'Very large friction drum © Pitt Rivers Museum
JC will use objects like this drum to research and tell the story of Mekatilili wa Menza, a woman who led a successful rebellion against British Colonial forces.
Sometimes, I hear or learn about a true story and it works the other way. I go to the Pitt Rivers on a mission to find out if they have in the collections the object that will make the story come alive for me and for my audience. That is the case with the current story that I am telling in Oxford and London. It’s called ‘Dance of Defiance’ and tells the story of Mekatilili wa Menza, a Giriama woman who led a successful rebellion against the British Colonial forces around the time of WW1.
When I first read the story, I couldn’t quite believe it – it’s a fantastic tale that even though has a sad beginning, is actually full of courage, resilience, hope and love. It drew me in because it also took place at a time where important international historical events were happening and yet here was one woman from East Africa who changed the course of not just her own history but that of the people that she led.
1929.1.2: 'Fire making set' © Pitt Rivers Museum
Objects like this will help JC tell the Dance of Defiance.
The story also stirred me because she was a fearless woman leader. When I went to the Pitt Rivers with her story, I was hoping for at best an item that might have been linked to the Giriama people who she led. What was in the collections was more than I expected. In it are examples of two key tools that she used to resist the colonial army. I will never know for sure if they belonged to her, but they come from the exact time period that she was active in her leadership.
To find out what the tools and the rest of her story are, the clue is in the title of my show ‘Dance of Defiance’. You can hear me tell it at the late night at the Pitt Rivers Museum on Friday 18thof May.
- JC Niala....