Ethics & Engagement across the Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programmes

I recently completed my MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology with the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. I am truly, grateful to have been awarded the GHBN bursary as it ensured that I took advantage of my studies and time in Oxford. It not only supported my dissertation project but enabled an encouraging academic environment. During my year in Oxford, I attended Ethox seminars and appreciated the fact that they extended outside term times. I was highly involved with the Africa Society, and forged links with the Africa Oxford Initiative who invited me to give a talk on my work - this was well received.

Chimwemwe on Matriculation Day (a ceremony that confers membership to the University of Oxford)

In this blog, I will detail some of the ethical issues that emerged from my work. My research interests are in the history of medicine and science in a museum context. My dissertation examined 180 photographs depicting Malawian patients suffering from various ailments taken by a colonial medical officer between 1905-1910. It became clear during analysis that at the time the images were produced, informed consent as an essential process in research did not exist. Due to the unequal power relations between a colonial medical officer and African patients, individuals were depicted in manners that are now considered dehumanising. (I found the photographs unsettling to view). In my dissertation I questioned the lack of anonymity, as subjects were named. I examined how dignity can be restored to the subjects. I am interested in the implications of historic records such as these in contemporary settings, and I am hoping to carry deeper research through a PhD by returning the photographs to Malawi, specifically to the communities they were taken and track the descendants of the people photographed. You may wonder why, I see the images as evidence of outbreaks that have now been eradicated, and can be useful to reflect on the current health status of Malawi.

I attended and participated in the summer school that was held in Oxford last July. I enjoyed interacting with researchers from other MOPS, and I hope to start discussions on guidelines on the management of visual media produced and used by the different MOPS. We create, use and circulate images more than we realise.  For example, an image attached to a grant application, a poster and images documenting interventions- we never think of the afterlife of images. Having operational guidelines will make sure that visual media are stored on online databases and used in an equitable manner.

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Comment by Dina Rippon on November 5, 2018 at 15:24

Dear Chimwemwe, thank you for this great summary of your MSc in Oxford. Congratulations on your matriculation - that's a great photo! It's really interesting to read about the work you carried out and fascinating to hear about your proposed next steps - returning the photos to Malawi and tracking the descendants. What an interesting journey that would be - do you have a sense of how easy/difficult it would be to trace the descendants? Were full names provided of the subjects in the photos, as well as the exact communities where they lived? This is a really interesting project and I would love to hear how you go forward with it. Best wishes, Dina

Comment by Chimwemwe Phiri on November 8, 2018 at 11:16

Hi Dina

Thank you for your comment!

It will be very interesting and important to explore what the descendants and local communities think of these images.  I am hopeful that significant reconnections will be made when I take the photos back. The backs of the photographs were labelled- names, years and locations were provided. Some of the names were of village headmen and these are highly traceable. The doctor whose collection I studied wrote several scientific articles with case studies providing more information and these will be useful. I also plan to show the photographs to health officials.


I am hoping to conduct preliminary research now that I am back in Malawi to include in my PhD proposal. I will keep you updated!


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