In 2015, in a forgotten filing cabinet at the headquarters of the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), researchers discovered 70,000 photographic negatives once thought to have been destroyed.
Sorted and labeled, these were Ministry of Information images spanning the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. They chronicled high politics and everyday life in Uganda. They also documented the regime of President Idi Amin. Until now, they have been unseen by the public.
In May, the Uganda Museum in Kampala debuted The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin, an exhibition of 200 photographs from the collection. The opening garnered coverage from the Daily Monitor, East African, and other media.
Professor Derek Peterson (History, African and Afroamerican Studies) is one of the curators. He is also helping lead an effort to digitize and preserve the photographic collection.
“There’s never been a public exhibition in Uganda about Idi Amin; neither is there a museum, or a monument, or a memorial to the time. There is no narrative around which to hang this story,” said Peterson.
“That is not to say that there’s an absence of discussion: all over the political spectrum Ugandans have been arguing over Amin’s legacy, and there’s been a number of recently published memoirs detailing authors’ experiences with Amin’s regime.”
The exhibition is part of a broader project aimed at digitizing the negatives and related radio and film recordings. Just two weeks ago, in a UBC storeroom, the team found 92 film reels of Uganda Television coverage of public events related to the Amin government.
“With the encouragement of the UBC these reels have now been transported to Ann Arbor, and we’re looking for funding to get them digitized,” said Peterson.
In 2020 the exhibit will travel to four regional museums in Uganda, and in 2021 the curators hope to take it outside of Uganda, possibly to Michigan. A documentary is also in the works. Project partners include UBC, Uganda Museum, Makerere University, U-M, and the University of Western Australia.
“As curators, we’ve had to be very sensitive about the variety of ways in which Ugandans understand and interpret the 1970s,” said Peterson. The curatorial team includes Uganda Museum’s Nelson Abiti, recent U-M Anthropology and History PhD Edgar Taylor, and University of Western Australia’s Richard Vokes.
“Our exhibition works by placing the grand images of public life—most of which are focused on Amin himself—with images of those who suffered or were killed during the 1970s. The idea is to juxtapose different kinds of historical experiences, different ways of seeing the time, so as to enable a pluralistic understanding of the past,” said Peterson.
At U-M, the project relied upon the Duderstadt Center’s Digital Media Commons, including staffer Tom Bray, who has made three trips to Uganda to lend his technical expertise. Ray Silverman (African and Afroamerican Studies, History of Art) and Laura de Becker (University of Michigan Museum of Art) played key roles in exhibit planning.
The exhibit is making a mark in Kampala. “On the day of the opening we convened a panel involving cabinet ministers who served in Amin’s government; a few days later we organized a session with his children; then another with journalists who covered his regime,” said Peterson.
“We ended the opening week with a seminar featuring people who suffered, personally, during the 1970s. All of these occasions were televised by the UBC, and they generated a good deal of discussion in media and in public life. We’ve tried in this way to facilitate the museum’s role as a public square, a place where consequential debates can happen.”