Report - Summer School: Contested Heritage and the Role of Provenance Research (part 2)

Summer School: Contested Heritage and the Role of Provenance Research (part 2) by Student Reporter Catherine E. Brenner Galli

Joined by an extraordinary team of experts, the event was organized by Evelien Campfens, Naomi Oosterman, Rients de Boer, Sanne Rossel, and the Centre for Global Heritage and Development.

Jos van Beurden presented his work in a session dedicated to the perspectives and dilemmas of colonial collections and restitutions. After giving examples of how heritage and cultural objects can be perceived in different parts of the globe, Van Beurden invited the participants of the summer school to reflect upon how cultural objects and human remains are exhibited and on how this can affect the original communities where these objects and remains came from. One of the exercises proposed by Van Beurden was to think about how the ideal decolonized museum would be. The answers varied from discussing better practices, such as being in close contact with the communities where the objects came from, to the idea that there is no such thing as a decolonized museum. This session fostered critical thinking about how many of the actual practices in the field directly reflect a colonialist mindset that still lives on in the heritage field.

Emiline Smith also brought a new perspective to the discussions in her session ‘The Ethics of Research and Repatriation: Working with Local Communities to Protect Cultural Objects”. Smith carefully explained how problematic taking pictures of cultural objects could be for many communities. What some may see as an object that needs to be exhibited in a museum and behind a glass for protection, can be a deity that needs to be taken care of, fed, and worshipped in contact with the local community. As Smith points out, the demands for Asian gods in museums are an act of violence. As fuzzy as the idea of cultural object might be, it is crucial to keep in mind that for many, a certain object is not solely an object, but an entity closely related to a community’s identity. Therefore, taking pictures of these deities can be very offensive. Another discussion brought up by Smith is regarding restitution: why do the communities have to prove that their objects belonged to them? The burden of proof should be on the collectors, not on the victims. Lastly, Smith also pointed out how much access, agency, and ownership have different agendas, stakeholders, and contexts, meaning that while some communities may demand their cultural objects back, others might prefer financial compensation or even a formal acknowledgement from museums.

Emiline Smith
Emiline Smith - The Ethics of Research and Repatriation

Julia Rickmeyer and Lea Grüter started their session and workshop by explaining the need for provenance research in Nazi-looted art and the need for restituting for historical justice. Provenance research has an internal phase of researching the object and the documentation that came with it and an external phase of looking for literature and images, databases and lists, and checking out red-flagged names of known collectors whose objects provenance might be dubious. However, as Grüter and Rickmeyer highlighted, there is no certain way or technique to conduct provenance research; these are just some of the steps that might be helpful. After this discussion, Grüter and Rickmeyer offered a practical experience of provenance research to the summer school participants and discussed their results and methods.

Julia Rickmeyer and Lea Grüter
Julia Rickmeyer and Lea Grüter during the session and workshop on Nazi-looted art

Will Korner followed the discussion in his session about “Provenance Research in Practice: Research and Results in the Antiquities Trade” by defending open databases and research tools for researchers, law enforcement and the general public. According to Korner, it is by having access to tools and databases that awareness rises and pressure is built onto conducting thorough provenance research. Additionally, Korner emphasized the need for cooperation to make research and restitutions possible.

Will Korner
Will Korner - discussion on provenance research in the antiquities trade

The summer school participants also had the amazing opportunity of hearing Donna Yates’ recent research about antiquities trafficking. Yates started her session by explaining that the idea of research provenance is an excellent start, but that the current approach focuses too much on objects, while there are other networks that could and should be examined. Yates discussed the idea of considering a different flow, such as the money flow in illicit trafficking. For Yates, this doesn’t mean ignoring the objects but looking at other networks behind them. The flow of money, for example, brings other actors into the equation of illicit trafficking, something that traditional provenance research does not do. For Yates, this is provenance research, even if the object is eventually out of the picture.

Donna Yates
Donna Yates: Provencance Beyond Objects

Taking all sessions into account, participants of the summer school on Contested Heritage and the Role of Provenance Research had the unique opportunity of getting an insight into different mindsets, perspectives, and in-depth discussions that opened new perspectives on how to think about heritage critically.

Participants of this year's summer school
Participants of this year's summer school