Colonial Collections Consortium

International Provenance Research Day

Together, we can gain a better understanding of the meaning and provenance of objects

Provenance research is an important part of collection management. On Wednesday 10 April, more than 100 institutions from the international field pay extra attention to this during International Provenance Research Day with publications and activities such as guided tours and presentations. This day is an initiative of the Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung and has taken place on the second Wednesday of April every year since 2019.

Provenance research maps the provenance history of objects. It provides insight into the history of owners of an object after it has been taken out of its original context. As part of my Heritage and Memory Studies programme at the University of Amsterdam, I, Josien Franken, am doing an internship at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE). I chose to pursue this internship because I am specifically interested in how collections from a colonial context are handled. Inspired by the International Provenance Research Day, I posed some questions to Klaas Stutje (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) and Cindy Zalm (Wereldmuseum, National Museum of World Cultures). Together with Museum Bronbeek and Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the RCE, NIOD and the Wereldmuseum form the Colonial Collections Consortium. I know that the Consortium supports collecting institutes in provenance research, but what does that actually entail? I am curious to hear what Cindy and Klaas can tell me about this.

Central to the Dutch policy on dealing with collections from a colonial context is the aim to redress historical injustice. Can you explain how provenance research can contribute to this?

Cindy: “Doing provenance research gives us a better understanding of how objects were obtained in colonial territories and came to the Netherlands. It forces us to recognise which violent events were part of these colonial histories and allows us to engage in a dialogue about the importance of these objects for countries of origin. It also makes it possible for these countries to request restitution of these objects.”

What kind of collaboration with countries and communities of origin is looked-for in this process? 

Cindy: “Many objects have been taken out of the context of the culture within which they were made. Knowledge has usually been lost as a result. People in countries of origin often know things about the objects that we do not. Together, we can gain a better understanding of the meaning and provenance of the objects. Furthermore, when the decision is made to restitute objects, it is important to talk with each other about how to do so. Precisely because restitution is only part of the whole restoration process.”

In the Pilot project Provenance Research on Objects of the Colonial Era research was conducted on provenance history and significance of cultural objects and collections acquired in colonial situations. What are the main lessons from this pilot project?

Klaas: “My answer to this question is twofold. On the one hand, our provenance research on 65 objects from the Rijksmuseum and the Wereldmuseum showed that focused research almost always leads to interesting new insights and additional information. On the other hand, it also showed that in only a minority of cases such research yields concrete clues about the moment of colonial acquisition itself. Moreover, experience in doing archival research and an awareness of the inherently colonial nature of source material are important when doing such research. Provenance research is thus a fruitful activity, but it also raises difficult questions and issues.”

Provenance research is one of the core tasks of institutions managing collections. In what way does the Consortium help them carry out this core task?

Klaas: “First of all, we are building a digital platform that brings information about various collections from colonial context together, enriches it and makes it accessible. By linking their own collection registration systems to this datahub, institutions can more easily recognise the relationship between their own collection and other collections. Furthermore, we are creating a comprehensive series of digital search tools for additional in-depth research on objects, collectors or collections. We also hope that institutions will learn and benefit from the knowledge and perspectives of researchers from countries of origin who can come to the Netherlands on fellowships. But ultimately, institutions themselves have to take steps to study their collections and make them accessible.”

The datahub is a digital platform that brings together information about collections from colonial contexts. How does the datahub make provenance information accessible and how does it provide insight? 

Cindy: “The datahub makes it possible to search through multiple collections simultaneously. The application includes a timeline. If a collection manager has provenance information, these are presented as a dot on the timeline. Many collection managers record provenance in separate reports or free text fields. These are often difficult or impossible to search through within a computer application. The datahub structures this information where possible. Moreover, it allows researchers in both the Netherlands and countries of origin to add knowledge about the objects and their origins.”

For the digital search tools and fellowships, how does the Consortium work together with countries and communities of origin?

Klaas: “The visits of fellows to the Netherlands and the development of digital search tools can hopefully be mutually reinforcing. Due to language barriers and unfamiliarity with the complicated history of Dutch heritage institutions, researchers from abroad often find research here complicated. Parallel to the fellows’ visits, we hope to create search tools to facilitate them in their research. We also actively learn from the research questions from countries of origin that we take away from webinars, expert meetings and individual encounters. In return, we hope that greater openness and transparency, including through the digital search tools, can foster new research and help restore broken links with cultural objects in the Netherlands.”

Thank you, Cindy and Klaas, for answering my questions. I have a better understanding now of how provenance research can help redress historical injustice, that the knowledge of people in countries of origin is essential to understand the original context of objects, and that the Consortium is working on a datahub, which will allow multiple collections to be searched simultaneously and offers possibilities for adding knowledge about the objects and their provenance. I look forward to following the Consortium’s future activities.

Do you also have questions for the Consortium? Please contact the Bureau through the contact page.

Curious about the datahub?