Decolonizing provenance research

Experiences in co-constructing knowledge and negotiating the future of colonial collections

International conference

Auditorium of MEG

Wednesday 24th and Thursday 25th November 2021


There are many initiatives in the field of “provenance research” (PR) of colonial collections in Europe today, as well as conferences on this theme. The distinctive aspect of the MEG – Musée d’ethnographie de Genève's proposal lies in the gathering of an international panel where the floor is given to six "tandems" of people who have in-depth expertise and original experiences in terms of participative provenance research that lead to a co-construction of knowledge and diverse solutions for re-appropriation. These tandems are generally composed of both museum professionals and collections' stakeholders from various cultural backgrounds, with no direct link to Swiss collections. In some cases more voices are invited directly in the presentations. The speakers are called to report on joint experiences in the co-construction of research methodologies, the revitalization of indigenous knowledge and practices, and the promotion of creativity around objects from disputed or historically sensitive colonial collections.

The aim of this conference is to broaden the scope of reflection around the question of "provenance research" from a decolonial perspective, i.e. critical, ethical, sustainable and equitable. This can and must be much more than a documentary research operation followed by a “data sharing”, and more than a possible administrative treatment aiming at the hypothetical physical return of an object or a collection for moral or legal reasons. Decolonial PR is a unique opportunity to develop equitable relationships with bearers of culture linked to colonial collections in our museums. It has given rise, in some cases, to diverse and enriching experiences. Discussants approach PR in an original and innovative way: rather than treating the objects from a merely archival, administrative and academic point of view, as it is essentially done in museums in Europe, PR is here approached in a broader manner. Through its heuristic and relational potential, it allows a new way of thinking: more creative than methodological, more experimental than systematic, more committed than disciplinary, more anthropological than historical.

Défense sculptée d’autel royal

Sculpted tusk from a royal altar

Nigeria, Benin kingdom

Edo. Circa 1735, reign of Oba Eresonyen

Ivory, burn marks

Acquired in 1949 from the Berkeley Gallery, London. Collected probably after the sacking of Benin City in 1897

MEG Inv. ETHAF 021934

Photo: © MEG, J. Watts

When a delegation from an indigenous people, for example, goes to a museum to consult collections, its members might not be doing "provenance research" just for the sake of historical knowledge. As the representative of a First Nation once kindly told one of us, they do not really need Western scholars to tell them for how many centuries they suffered oppression, and in which despicable conditions they were spoiled of their cultural properties. They often go in search of objects that have spiritual value, that have a filiation with the living, or a potential in terms of well-being. Decolonized PR approaches, as discussed in this conference, can make it possible to revive narratives or practices that strengthen the cohesion of the group, its identity or its memory. Their method is likely to be based more on visual examination of the objects and clues they present than on a study of archival documents, not excluding the latter, obviously. Moreover, it is not so much the knowledge of the mode of acquisition – or of spoliation of the object and its author – that may interest them, than the potential benefits of a temporary meeting with, or repatriation of the very object. In this context, bonds of trust, dialogue and engaged collaboration with the people in charge of these collections are sometimes built over many years. From all this, museum professionals at large can learn a great deal and adapt their praxis in a relevant, more respectful and mutually enriching way. Developing relationships of trust and fair exchanges with communities from where objects originate, in contexts that are sometimes sensitive and always idiosyncratic, is one of MEG's strategic goals.

Beyond the simple identification of objects, and their provenance in the strict sense of the term, the conference speakers take into account the subjective aspects of the relationship to the object or collection, the political aspect of research and relationship to institutions, the educational and creative potential of these approaches, and the ethical component intrinsic to the development of collaborative work: jointly exploring archives, listening to others, gathering and confronting disparate data, merging, diversifying and enriching narratives, reactivating know-how, re-membering indigenous knowledge, taking contrasting positions, promoting innovation and multiple ways of thinking and proceeding. Ultimately, such approaches go far beyond the need of legality and transparency in the field of provenance research as routinely practiced in European museums, adding the paramount notion of equity in the core of the working process.

Today, Swiss provenance researchers are relatively little involved in the field in the countries of origin of the collections, and still rarely collaborate in their own field with people whose origin or social group has a filiation with the collections. The speakers’ presentations will reflect a more decolonial approach to PR, rooted in experimental fieldwork practice, fostering the co-construction of knowledge and the negotiation of the future of colonial collections. This has been the main criteria in our search for speakers. Opening up to colonial collections and cases without any direct link to the Swiss context should contribute to a greater independence of mind and freedom of speech in the debates with our curators and both local and international audience.

Among its recently defined strategic goals, the MEG intends to promote both the creation and the co-construction of knowledge by questioning its collections and developing new links with the living bearers of culture and other stakeholders. The aim of this conference is therefore to share the experience and inspiration of these speakers with the Swiss museum community as well as with students, while at the same time offering access to an audience as wide as possible. Taking the form of a think tank, this conference provides an intellectual and creative impetus, promoting debate and anchoring the MEG in a determined and equitable decolonial perspective for future projects. This event could be one of the first milestones of a new and sustainable collaborative practice around sensitive collections that we wish to share with our partners and our public.

This conference is made possible by the support of the Swiss Federal Office of Culture FOC.

Boris Wastiau and Aude Polito, conference conveners



Wednesday 24 November 2021
08:15-09:00 Reception and coffee
09:00-09:30 Introduction
09:30-10:30 Taonga, Te Moana, Tupaia: Reflections of the Rangiwaho Marae, an artist, and a curator on the return of Cook collections from the UK.

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, Julie Adams, Kay Robin and Jody Toroa
10:45-11:45 Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures: Collaboratively researching the collections from Namibia at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.

Larissa Förster, Julia Binter and Golda Ha-Eiros
12:00-14:00 Lunch break
14:00-15:00 Maguta Museum: Celebrating historical memories and ancestral traditions.

João Pacheco de Oliveira and Salomão Inácio Clemente
Thursday 25 November 2021
08:45-09:30 Reception and coffee
09:30-10:30 More than a guulany (tree): Aboriginal Knowledge Systems.

Brook Garru Andrew, Brian Martin, Roslyn McGregor and Kimberley Moulton
10:45-11:45 Yahguudang.gang: To Pay Respect.

Jisgang Nika Collison and Lucy Bell
12:00-14:00 Lunch break
14:00-15:00 Cosme & Damião: A project for a twin collection for the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro – Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (MN), Brazil, and for the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (MOA), Canada.

Nuno Porto and Renata de Castro Menezes
15:15-15:45 Debate and conclusions
15:45-17:00 Aperitif


Program [PDF 0.5 Mo]


  1. Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (Artist, Historian, Chair of Global Art at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom), Julie Adams (Curator responsible for the Oceania Collections at the British Museum, London, United Kingdom), Kay Robin et Jody Toroa (Ngati Rangiwaho, Ngai Tamanuhiri from the east coast of Aotearoa, New Zealand)
  2. Larissa Förster (Head of the Department for Cultural Goods and Collections from Colonial Contexts, German Lost Art Foundation, Berlin, Germany), Julia Binter (Social anthropologist, Provenance researcher at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany) et Golda Ha-Eiros (Curator responsible for the Anthropology Collection, National Museum of Namibia (NMN), Windhoek, Namibia)
  3. João Pacheco de Oliveira (Curator of Ethnographic Collections/SEE, National Museum of Rio de Janeiro (MNRJ), Full Professor - National Museum, Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology - PPGAS/UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), Brazil) et Salomão Inácio Clemente (Tikuna researcher, Maguta Museum, Benjamin Constant, Amazonas, Brazil)
  4. Brook Garru Andrew (Artist, Associate Professor of Fine Art, Wominjeka Djeembana Indigenous Research Lab, Monash University, Enterprise Professor Interdisciplinary Practice, University of Melbourne, Australia), Brian Martin (Artist, Associate Dean Indigenous and Director Wominjeka Djeembana Indigenous Research Lab at Monash University, Australia), Roslyn McGregor (PhD candidate, Wominjeka Djeembana Indigenous Research Lab, Monash University, Senior Curator, South-Eastern Aboriginal Collections at Museums Victoria, Melbourne, Australia) et Kimberley Moulton (Kamilaroi Elder, Senior Leader for Community Engagement at Walgett Community College High School and Chairperson Collarenebri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Australia)
  5. Jisgang Nika Collison (Executive Director, Haida Gwaii Museum, Ḵay Llnagaay, Canada) et Lucy Bell (PhD Candidate, Simon Frazer University, British Columbia, Canada)
  6. Nuno Porto (Curator of Africa and Latin America Collections, Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) et Renata de Castro Menezes (Director of LUDENS (Laboratory of Anthropology of Play and Sacredness/Laboratório de Antropologia do Lúdico e do Sagrado), PPGAS MN UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)