MOST visitors to the Pitt Rivers are unlikely to notice the case packed full of Zimbabwean instruments tucked away from the museum’s headline attractions.

At most you may give it a glance, feel slightly uncomfortable at the use of the colonial name Rhodesia, and move on – your eye drawn to another of the 500,000 objects held in the collections.

For tour guide Thabo, however – one of six who has just started volunteering in the museum – a little piece of his childhood is displayed in that case.

“This is the sound of Zimbabwe,” he tells those attending one of the first tours organised the Multaka project, which involves people from other countries and cultures giving their own personal tours of the 135-year-old Parks Road institution.

He goes on to demonstrate how the mbira instrument in his hand is played by plucking at the metal keys with your fingertips, before describing its pivotal place in his country’s culture and the role it played in the wars of liberation.

An idea started in the museums of Berlin, Oxford University was given a grant by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation to bring Multaka – which means 'meeting place' in Arabic - over here.

At the History of Science Museum, tours have been conducted in Arabic of the Islamic science instruments collection while, at the Pitt Rivers, short tours are curated by the volunteers themselves and focus on a small handful of personal objects.

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Volunteer coordinator Rachel Harrison said: “In Oxford there are people from all over the world, living in our city today – for so many reasons.

“They can tell us about their experiences of those objects when they lived in other places. It is changing who talks about what and the way it is talked about.

“The guides are all from completely different backgrounds with different knowledge and skills.

“What each tour guide decides to talk about is up to them.

“We gave them training in how to structure a tour, how to present to people and confidence building, then we helped with research – but each tour is personal and specific to that person.”

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Thabo, who didn’t want to give his surname, has been in Oxford for three years and says he has always had a fascination with museums.

He says he finds it empowering to share the culture of his mother’s country and hopes that his involvement in the project will give others the ‘strength and courage’ to walk into the museum, even if they have always assumed it is not a place for them.

“This is a book waiting to be opened,” he said of the museum.

“It’s got 500,000 pages. Sometimes you can say ‘why not open page 4,560, it’s quite interesting’.

“All this is waiting to be explored but it needs voices – voices from Myanmar, from Syria, from Kenya; people who can bring the object to life through their own personal stories because they have experienced it elsewhere.”

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Multaka is the latest project from the Pitt Rivers which attempts to address its thorny history head-on.

The museum, founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, features an extraordinary array of items collected from around the world, firstly by its founder for his private collection, and then donated over the last century by travellers, scholars and missionaries.

Multaka comes at a time when museums across the UK are increasingly facing calls for items to be returned back – or repatriated – to their country of origin, particularly if they were stolen or obtained through violence.

In February, The Guardian newspaper revealed that institutions including the British Museum and Natural History Museum in London have recently turned down dozens of requests to relinquish control of parts of their collections.

They included a call from the government of Gibraltar for the return of Neanderthal remains and a request from Chile for the repatriation of the remains of a now extinct giant sloth.

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Thabo’s personal opinion is that the items from Zimbabwe in the Pitt Rivers add to the understanding of its traditions and history, particularly at a time when the country often seems to be in the news for the wrong reasons.

This week Bloomberg reported that, after struggling with shortages of cash, fuel and electricity for months, the country is now running out of passports.

Hope for an economic recovery under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded long-ruling Robert Mugabe in 2017, has floundered and official inflation is now 100 per cent.

“People only think about what is going on in Zimbabwe at the moment but it has a rich culture over thousands of years and these objects show the country in a different light,” Thabo said.

“We don’t know how a lot of these items have been procured or acquired. But, for it to be here, it gives a voice to the people of Zimbabwe.

“It may lead people to think ‘I want to go there one day'.”

Last year The Pitt Rivers welcomed several members of the Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai tribe to advise on the way some of their sacred objects are displayed in the museum.

But Ms Harrison is quick to emphasise that the issue of repatriation is complicated.

She said: “You have to approach it on a object-by-object basis.

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“If you look around us, you have to acknowledge that, yes, some of these things were acquired through violence and stealing but others were acquired through fair exchanges.

“In the last few years, many of our volunteers have donated their own objects to the museum because they want them to be here and to be seen.

“It feels like, for the moment, if we have this stuff here then we may as well use it as a way of understanding and respecting these cultures.”

Museums are, by their very nature, institutions that look to the past and that can make their curators reluctant to change.

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The Pitt Rivers preserves its colonial-era labels and ways of displaying objects and, for many visitors, that is part of its charm.

But, according to Ms Harrison, Multaka demonstrates the museum’s ambition to do things differently, while preserving important parts of its past.

“With many of these labels, we would never choose them now.

“But it is a helpful and important reminder of a very violent past of the colonial era and that is what we need to talk about in this space.

“It is uncomfortable, there is a lot of violence in this museum.

“We need to recognise that, talk about it publicly and prevent it from happening again.

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“But we can also create a space where we can talk about the positive things and the incredible advances in technology have come from these cultures.

“We’re saying 'let’s be honest about history and talk about it'.”

The funding for Multaka is drawing to an end but all involved hope that it may be able to continue.

It won a Museums + Heritage award for volunteer team of the year and contributed to the Pitt Rivers being nominated for the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award.

Perhaps more significantly, it has led to people wanting to get involved in the museum who have never considered doing so before.

The information they have provided will be added to the museum’s database to inform curators for decades to come.

In the future, it is also hoped that more of the staff will reflect the diversity of the museum’s collections and Ms Harrison also believes that other museums and heritage sites can implement similar schemes.

Multaka, it seems, is an idea whose time has come.