An international research project looking at the photographic records of Europe’s colonial past has launched a public website.
The project called PhotoCLEC is led by experts at De Montfort University (DMU) and is researching how colonial photographs have been used and experienced by museums and their visitors.
Its new website explores the different ways in which photographs from the colonial past have been used by museums to communicate and interpret the colonial past Europe.
Researchers examined practices and collections in a wide range of institutions in the UK, the Netherlands and Norway.
Using photographs, the research has revealed similarities and differences in the ways in which different European nations have addressed and visualised (or failed to visualise) this formative past within national and European historical narratives.
The project has been led by Professor Elizabeth Edwards of DMU's Photographic History Research Centre, who said of the resource: “Our aim has been a comparative understanding of the mechanisms through which public histories of the colonial past work, because these go to the heart of the way contemporary European identities are negotiated.
“Our extensive interviews with curators and other stakeholders, have contributed to a better understanding of the rich potential of photograph collections to re-establish relationships between national and European history, and to acknowledge Europe’s multiple colonial past as a relevant force in contemporary society.
“The website is designed as a didactic tool for practitioners and students in the field, introducing key themes which get little or no airing elsewhere.”
In the UK the focus has been on a study of museum practices at the intersection of photograph collections and the colonial past.
Under the title “Photographic Heritage: ‘Difficult’ Histories and Cultural Futures”, led by Professor Edwards, it has addressed issues of the management and representation of ‘the colonial past’ in UK museums.
In the Netherlands it focused on the histories represented in the Dutch and Indo-Dutch photographic legacy of colonialism.
The starting point has been the 60,000 photographs collected in an Indo-Dutch photograph collection created after decolonization by IWI (Indisch Wetenschappelijk Instituut, or Indo-Dutch Scientific Institute). These photographs had been digitized, and the originals donated to the Tropenmuseum.
The Norwegian project explored how the photographic legacy of the colonial-style and colonial related activities are addressed in museums and archives.
A major achievement of PhotoCLEC has been to bring into question the way ‘the colonial’ works as a category in museums, and the work of photographs in bringing these problems of inclusion or exclusion to the surface.
The project saw how in some instances, (as in the case of the Sami in Norway) colonial photographs were deliberately not put on display in order to allow for new interpretations of their past society and culture beyond colonial visual legacies.
In other cases (as in the case of the Indo-Dutch communities in the Netherlands) collecting and interpreting photographs from the colonial past was chosen as a strategy to empower the immigrant minority group.
Across the three European countries studied, there was a marked difference in the willingness of museums to engage with the centrality of the colonial past in European history and identity.
Much of this, the researchers found, depends on the ways in which ‘the colonial’ is constructed in the public imagination and degree to which both European and ‘ethnic minority and immigrant groups’ wished to position the colonial past as a shared history, and the level of willingness to confront its challenges.
Picture caption: District Commissioner Percy Coriat (seated right) talking with a group of Nuer men is South Sudan, some time between 1924-8. This arresting image, found in one of Coriat's personal albums, was included in the PhotoCLEC exhibition The Colonial Album at the Pitt Rivers Museum in 2012. It complicates assumptions about colonial relationships in a number of ways. Coriat, although seated on a low chair instead of on the ground like the Nuer men, is engaged in a non-confrontational and direct discussion with the group since he spoke Nuer and had a deep interest in Nuer culture and society. The soldier in the centre of the image is African (possibly from Western Equatoria) which stands as a powerful reminder of the colonial system's use of non-local soldiers to enforce administration in Africa, which is the context of this image.
PRM2007.34.2.48. Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
Posted on Wednesday 18th July 2012