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Many museums in Europe and beyond are wrestling with their colonial collections. What should happen with these objects that were acquired in the colonial past? And which role can this heritage play in improving mutual relationships? Cultural Studies scholar Chiara De Cesari is going to research this, together with other scholars and artists, in the Repair Lab, which was recently launched and is part of the research programme Pressing Matter.

The aim of the Repair Lab is to bring together parties involved from all over the world to jointly develop and test new models for ownership and return of objects, says De Cesari.

‘Many colonial objects have a very complex history, as a result of which it’s often too much of an oversimplification to say that they were looted or, as the case may be, lawfully acquired. What should happen with these objects, the ownership of which is so complex? And how can museums deal with legal and ownership issues – for example that stolen objects are sometimes property of a state, as a result of which museums cannot simply return them. My fellow researchers will consider these types of issues in the Pressing Matter project. In the Repair Lab, we will subsequently test that knowledge in practice, by searching for new forms of ownership.’

Multidisciplinary teams

The Lab is going to organise workshops and meetings in various countries in which multidisciplinary teams of, among others, researchers, artists, curators, cultural policymakers and activists will address this issue. The ‘Creative Co-Production’ model of artist Tal Adler – which was developed to promote change within cultural institutions through artistic and collaborative practice-based research – will play a central role in this. The researchers are planning to organise workshops in, among other countries, Ghana, South Africa and Indonesia. As part of the execution of the project, De Cesari will collaborate with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) researcher Katja Kwastek and other researchers within the Pressing Matter project, in addition to various cultural partners, including the Rijksacademie and Framer Framed.

De Cesari hopes that the project will yield new models and guidelines for how European museums can deal with their colonial collections, and this will lead to fairer relationships between the countries that were formerly colonised and their former colonisers. ‘In this project, we will research how we can carefully tackle the issue of restitution of colonial heritage, while considering the broader issue of colonial legacies in our societies. I hope that we can give the mutual relationships a new, more generative form through these objects’, according to the researcher.

Part of Pressing Matter

The Repair Lab is the creative, experimental part of Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums – a four-year research programme in which five academic institutions and five Dutch museums are conducting research, together with international partners, into issues related to colonial museum collections. Pressing Matter is financed by the Living History (Levend Verleden) programme of the Dutch National Research Agenda (Nationale Wetenschapsagenda ) and coordinated by VU professors Susan Legêne and Wayne Modest.

Dr. C. (Chiara) de Cesari

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Europese studies