Derek R. Peterson is professor in the History Department and the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. He was formerly Director of the African Studies Centre and Fellow of Selwyn College at Cambridge University. His scholarly work is about the intellectual and cultural history of eastern Africa. Peterson is a Fellow of the British Academy; in 2017 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
Peterson has been much involved with Michigan’s African Studies Center, acting at various times as Associate Director, Director pro tempore, and Coordinator of the African Heritage Initiative, a working group that brings humanities scholars in Michigan together with colleagues in Ghana, South Africa and elsewhere. Through the African Studies Center he’s coordinated a number of workshops, including a large international conference in Accra in December 2009 (with the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana) and, in July 2011, a scholarly meeting at Museum Africa in Johannesburg. All of this resulted in the publication of Peterson, Kodzo Gavua, and Ciraj Rassool, eds., The Politics of Heritage in Africa (Cambridge UP, 2015).
Peterson is the principal investigator for a $1.5 million grant awarded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation to the U-M African Studies Center and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (South Africa). The program–entitled ‘Rethinking the Humanities in Africa: A Transnational Collaboration‘–is meant to draw students and faculty from Michigan and Wits into collaborative research projects. Peterson organised (with Daniel Herwitz) a November 2014 conference on ‘African Studies in the Digital Age’ in Ann Arbor; in June 2016 Peterson coordinated a conference in Johannesburg on ‘African Print Cultures’ (with Isabel Hofmeyr); and in June 2018 he helped to organise a workshop at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo concerning ‘Intellectual and Cultural Life in Conditions of Austerity’.
With financial support from the Center for Research Libraries and the U-M African Studies Center, Peterson oversees an ongoing effort to organize and preserve endangered government archives in Uganda. The project–which is described elsewhere on this site–is based at Mountains of the Moon University in western Uganda. Over the course of ten years seven archival collections have been organised and catalogued, including the papers of Jinja District, Kabale District, Kabarole District, and Hoima District. Several of these archives have been brought into the university’s collections and made available for scholars’ and citizens’ use.
For several years Peterson has worked with colleagues to digitise a very large collection of photographic negatives held by the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation in Kampala. That preservation work has led to an exhibition entitled ‘The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin: Photographs from the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation’, curated by Peterson with Nelson Abiti, Richard Vokes, and Edgar Taylor. The exhibition–which opened at the Uganda Museum in Kampala in May 2019–consisted of 150 images, displayed together with a selection of sound and film material. In 2020 the exhibition traveled to regional venues in Soroti and Arua. Further information on the exhibition can be found elsewhere on this site.
Peterson is a Fellow of the Royal Historical History, a winner of the Philip Leverhulme Prize in Modern History (given by the Leverhulme Trust to U.K.-based scholars under 35 years old), and has held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and from the Guggenheim Foundation. He has been a Visiting Fellow of the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame; a Visiting Fellow of the Re:Work Institute at Humboldt University in Berlin; and a Research Associate at the Department of History and Archaeology, University of Nairobi; the Department of History, University of Dar es Salaam; and the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University. He is currently a research associate of the School of Social Sciences, Makerere University.