Treasures from the RAI’s photo archive have been featured in The Guardian online. The photo essay – part of The Guardian’s ‘In Pictures’ series – includes some of the remarkable physical type portraits taken by Northcote Thomas in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century.

Thomas was an Assistant Secretary of the RAI and subsequently serves on its Council. He was also the first Government Anthropologist to be appointed by the British Colonial Office. In this capacity he conducted a series of anthropological surveys in what were then the protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the surveys, Thomas took thousands of photographs, made hundreds of sound recordings and assembled large collections of artefacts and botanical specimens. The RAI holds the original glass plate negatives of Thomas’s photographs and is a partner in the AHRC-funded Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project that is investigating the ‘archival legacies’ of Thomas’s surveys.

The project, which is being led by Paul Basu of SOAS University of London, has been retracing Thomas’s itineraries in West Africa, and taking back copies of the photographs and sound recordings to local communities. It has also been working with Nigerian and Sierra Leonean artists to explore contemporary creative responses to the colonial archives, and engaging with West African communities in London. A film, Faces|Voices, documenting people’s responses to Thomas’s physical type photographs won the Best Research Film prize at the AHRC Film Awards last week.

The [Re:]Entanglements project will culminate in a large exhibition at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in October to December 2020, which will then transfer to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2021. The project provides a valuable opportunity for anthropology to reflect upon its entanglement in colonialism, but also to consider the decolonial possibilities of colonial archives and collections.