Artefacts as archives in the (post)colonial museum
- Sudanese spears from Darfur in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, grabbed in 1917 in El Fasher
- © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Arts & Humanities Research Council
University of Oxford
Pitt Rivers Museum
TU Berlin: Bénédicte Savoy 
University of Oxford: Dan Hicks 
TU Berlin: Eyke Vonderau 
University of Oxford:
TU Berlin: Yann LeGall 
University of Oxford: Mary-Ann Middelkoop
Elias Aguigah 
Jeanne-Ange Wagne 
- © R.K. Granville, Wikimedia Commons
Between 1884 and 1919 thousands of objects, artworks and human remains were shipped from all over the world to museums in Europe. Many of those were acquired during colonial wars or so-called “punitive expeditions”. But what exactly can be called a “punitive expedition”? Can these collections be then considered as trophies or spoils of war? What responsibility do museums have today regarding these looted treasures? What histories of violence are attached to those objects?
By looking into museum inventories and archives, The Restitution of Knowledge wishes to document and rethink the history of ‘plunder’ in ethnological collections. The project ultimately wants to tell untold histories of colonial spoliation out of their material evidence. These collections are more than ever relevant for future transnational partnerships in the cultural sector and this project believes in an urgent need for the museum sector to work through the difficult history of wars and colonial expeditions. At the same time, this history should also be told from the perspective of descendants of colonized people and members of civil society. Yet, even though descendants usually know about the past and this history of oppression, many still ignore the presence of those artefacts in European museums.
This project combines different fields of research (history of collections, cultural institutions, the displacement of cultural heritage and provenance studies) and aims to distinguish colonial plunder from scientific undertakings, gifts, purchases, commissions, and so on. A thin line separated military from scientific expeditions and their often violent or coercive methods of collecting. This is why this object-based research project on colonial collections shall reveal detailed information of provenance that can influence new practices in museum anthropology.
To stitch together fragmented histories and legacies of plunder across museums, archives and borders, cooperation with researchers and source communities in the Global South shall also bring about a deeper engagement with how to deal with these artefacts in the future.