African Missionaries workshop
Visiting the SOAS archives is an important part of the course African Missionaries, convened by Dr Jörg Haustein of the Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS. The course is concerned with the historical analysis of published and unpublished missionary materials pertaining to Africa. It explores how these sources can be read critically in order to gain a better understanding of the complex dynamics between African societies and European missionaries in the colonial period.
The course syllabus makes extensive use of SOAS archive material. Moreover, students have to explore the archives themselves for their 6,000 word essay, in order to answer a historical question they set in consultation with the academic supervisor. This provides them with a small, but engaging research experience.
On 11 February the course convened for a special session in the Special Collections Reading Room, in order to provide students with an introduction to the SOAS archives. For a number of them this was their first visit in an archive – an eye opener to the rich material world of archival sources. The archivists had put on display a variety of sources pertaining to Africa: missionary journals, letters, meeting minutes, photographs, semi-published material and periodicals, especially from the London Missionary Society (LMS) and various Methodist missions.
The session began with a visit to the archive storage room “behind the scenes”, which helped the students appreciate the size of the SOAS collection as well as different aspects about storing the material. The largest part of the session was dedicated to browsing through the various types of material on display. The archivists explained the specificities of the encountered material: what kind of information they focused on, who they were produced for, what their material limitations were, how they were collected and arranged, and so on. Finally the students were shown ways to locate information for their project, from using reference works and periodicals to working with catalogues, including the online Archive catalogue.
The students gave excellent feedback about the session and began the exploratory work for their essays in the following days. Integrating the archives at SOAS into the course greatly enriches student learning in many ways: from the hands-on experience of material otherwise only consulted as digital copies to the possibility of exploring the archives themselves.
A similar session was given on 21st January to visiting students studying for a course entitled ‘Christianity, Identity and Social Change’, part of the World Christianities Pathway in the Theology and Religious Studies MPhil at Cambridge University.
A SOAS Archives Guide to Missionary Sources Relating to Africa is available to download as a pdf.