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Accepted Paper:

Taking responsibility through provenance research? Researchers, museum institutions and post-colonial contexts  
Gesa Grimme (Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich)

Paper short abstract:

Provenance research on objects from colonial contexts is seen as an important instrument for addressing the legacies of colonialism underpinning ethnographic museums. By ethnographically studying the ways this research is done, in practice, I assess its potential to transform these institutions.

Paper long abstract:

In recent years, under the growing pressure of critical publics in Europe and its former colonies, museums officials and political decision-makers have increasingly emphasized the need to address the legacies of colonialism enshrined in ethnographic museums. Provenance research on collections from colonial contexts is considered as an important instrument to take responsibility of the imperial past and shape a more ethical present and future. However, most of the debate is driven by museum figures and academics who are rarely involved in the practice of research. Those who carry out provenance research, remain mostly invisible in public discourses. In my PhD thesis, I ethnographically study the doing of provenance research on collections from colonial contexts, examining its epistemological modes, ontological grounding and ethical implications. In this paper, based on preliminary research, I address the ways in which institutional structures and processes affect protagonists, research practices, and the production of knowledge. How are provenance researchers and their work integrated into the institutional frameworks of museums? How do divergent postcolonial positions and perspectives find their way into the research process? How does the much-invoked “transparent cooperation with the societies of origin at eye-level” work in practice? And who presents, in the end, what findings to whom? By asking these questions, I assess to which extent provenance research assists in the transformation of ethnographic museums. Does it offer an avenue towards the so-called ‘decolonization of the ethnographic museum’, or can its promotion be unmasked as another instance of ‘strategic reflexivity’ employed to appease critics?

Panel Speak21b
Taking responsibility for colonial heritage in Europe? Perspectives from organisational ethnographies II
  Session 1 Tuesday 30 March, 2021, -