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Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums

Growing contestation over what to do with the colonial heritage held in museums reveals polarised positions, ranging from scholars, activists and community members championing the return of objects to correct historical wrongs, to those who contend that objects should be retained by museums in light of their (universal) cultural and scientific value (Jenkins 2016; van Beurden 2017).

In the middle are advocates of more relational heritage practices, comprising dialogue and sharing in how objects are distributed (Thomas 2019; Merryman 2006). These debates are not limited to museums, but are part of broader geopolitical negotiations as evidenced by French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement in 2017 about the need to return Africa’s cultural heritage from Western museums (Sarr and Savoy 2018). Underlying this contention are often conflicting definitions of value and ownership. While valuation and property regime theories can help to shed light on what is at stake in such heritage object-oriented conflicts, they tend to be insufficiently aware of the complex colonial and postcolonial relations that have shaped, and continue to shape, our world and heritage discourses and practices, notions of ownership and value, and the distribution of such heritage.

Connecting fundamental theories of valuation and property to postcolonial debates on heritage, this project aims to develop and test, first, new theoretical models of value and ownership and, second, new forms of return that extend current approaches to heritage restitution, while developing a theory of object potentialities grounded in the entangled, multipolar histories in which colonial objects were collected, kept and made meaningful. Organised around 8 work packages (and structured into 4 groups of 2 to ensure different modes of engaging each theme) , the project addresses the following questions:
1. What potential do objects (cultural and biological, including human remains and academic medical collections) collected during the colonial period contain to help us better understand the colonial past and address its ongoing legacies in the postcolonial Netherlands and Europe? (Q1)
2. What conceptions of ownership do different stakeholders – museums, curators, scientists, members of originating communities – invoke in their claims to colonial objects? (Q2)
3. Through what regimes of value do these different groups of stakeholders interpret and make claims on colonial objects? Under what circumstances can these regimes and conceptions become compatible? (Q3)

The project is financed by the Netherlands National Research Agenda under the rubric of ‘Living Past’. It starts 1 March 2021  and lasts until December 2025.


  • University/Academic: Vrije Universiteit; Amsterdam; Utrecht University; University of Amsterdam; University of Groningen; Leiden University; NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (KNAW); Dutch Foundation for Academic Heritage
  • Museum: National Museum of World Cultures/Wereldmuseum Rotterdam; Rijksmuseum; Groningen University Museum; Museum Vrolik; University Museum Utrecht; Museum Bronbeek
  • Societal: The Black Archives; Imagine IC; Hapin Papua Support Foundation; Dutch Culture; Peace Palace Library; Framer Framed, Rijksakademie; Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE) 
  • Critical Friends: Prof Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape); Prof Mahirta (University Gadjah Mada, Indonesia); Dr Olivia Cunha (Museu Nacional, Brazil); Prof Sharon Macdonald (CARMAH); Dr Larissa Forster (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, Germany); Dr Laura van Broekhoven (Pitt Rivers Museum); Dr Jos van Beurden (VU); Joe Horse Capture (Autry Museum of the American West); Dr. Amber Aranui, Museum Te Papa.
  • International (academic) Partner: Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Museum Nasional, Indonesia, Center for Anthropological Research of Museums and Heritage (CARMaH); Pitt Rivers Museum.

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