To answer the question of how to deal with objects from colonial contexts, information about their history of origin and acquisition is important. But how do you research the history, provenance and meaning of objects acquired in a colonial context?
The Minister of Education, Science and Culture asked for a pilot project to be launched in 2019 with the aim of developing a methodology for provenance research on collections from colonial contexts. Specialists from three heritage institutions addressed that question: NIOD, Wereldmuseum and Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. The results were recorded in the final report Clues which describes the three steps of the research: selecting & prioritising objects, researching and reporting.
The methodology was established using objects from the Dutch National Collection that arrived in the Netherlands from Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Researchers from the source countries participated in the project.
What is provenance research?
Provenance research has always been carried out within disciplines such as art history and archaeology, usually to establish the authenticity of objects and attributions. With regard to objects with a colonial history, we understand provenance research to be the study of the history of the acquisition of objects and successive owners, before and after they were removed from their original context. We are also interested in the function, meaning and value of objects at that time and today for the original owners/users, and the shift of that meaning as a result of their acquisition and movement to the Netherlands.
Who conducts provenance research?
Provenance research is an important part of responsible collection management as also laid out in the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. The institution managing an object is responsible for research to find out the provenance of the objects in its collections. In museums, provenance research is usually done by or in coordination with the curator.
How do you conduct provenance research?
Research on colonial collections has a specific complexity. Consideration should be given, for instance, to the colonial perspectives from which these collections were collected and categorised. Attention should also be paid to the one-sided nature of the available source material and the different cultural and political meanings of objects in (former) colonising and colonised countries. A comprehensive guide can be found in the report Clues.