Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums

RESEARCH PROJECT | 2021 - 2025

The National Museum of World Cultures (NMVW) and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (VU) will start the research project Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums. The research team will comprise researchers from five academic institutions, five Dutch museums, in collaboration with national, and international partners from across the world. In this four-year research project, the team will address issues surrounding museum collections collected in the colonial period. The overall project budget is 4.5 million euros, of which 3.5 million will be funded by the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA). In total, at least 12 research positions will become available for this project.

The next step in dealing with colonial collections

Pressing Matter was initiated as part of the long-standing collaboration between the NMVW and the VU and is led by Prof. Dr. Wayne Modest, Director of Content of the National Museum of Worldcultures & Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam and director of the Research Center for Material Culture, and professor by special appointment at the VU on behalf of the NMVW. “Conducting provenance research is extremely important in the debates around collections from the colonial period, and goes beyond looted art alone,” said Modest. “This was recently confirmed by the Dutch Council for Culture in its advisory report. Following our earlier initiatives on how to deal with collections collected in the colonial period, we are now taking the very important next step in this process, together with our partners. ”

Image: RV-1684-11, Golden beaker used to contain holy water sprinkled during Hindu festivals and at temples. Taken in the aftermath of the Puputan (fight to the death) subsequent to the attack of Dutch forces in the Kingdom of Klungkung, Bali, in 1908.  

Cultural and societal value

The Pressing Matter project is in line with Council of Council’s advisory report focussing as it does on research into colonial collections and on the development of research methodologies to do so. Also in line with the report, the researchers in Pressing Matter will develop tools in dialogue with the countries of origin, on how to deal with objects in colonial collections that are not spoils of war, but that do have important socio- cultural value. Modest: “We will not only consider looted objects, but also focus on other collection histories; importantly this will include investigating possible solutions for human remains in the collections.”

The collaboration between universities, museums and other partners is of great value in bringing together different perspectives: academic, museological, scientific and societal. Prof. Susan Legêne: “We bring our international knowledge and networks together in search of answers to important social issues surrounding the collections. This goes beyond questions such as where do objects come from and to whom they belong? Importantly: for whom do they carry meaning today and how or where does these meaning  are most relevant are important questions?”

Thematic selection

The initiators cannot yet say how many objects will be investigated precisely. The collections will be examined thematically, according to their collection history. This includes items collected during military actions, during missionary work, through trade relations or through scientific expeditions.


The collections on which the research will focus are located at the NMVW (Tropenmuseum, Museum Volkenkunde and Afrika Museum), the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, the Rijksmuseum, Museum Bronbeek, Museum Vrolik (AUMC), University Museum Utrecht and the Groningen University Museum. In addition to employees of these museums, the project will include researchers from various scientific disciplines affiliated with the VU, Utrecht University, NIOD, University of Groningen, Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam. The project will also include external international researchers and museum professionals.

About the Dutch Research Agenda

Pressing Matter is included in the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA). The NWA addresses questions that require coordination and cooperation in order to achieve scientific and societal breakthroughs. The aim of the NWA is to make a positive and structural contribution to the global knowledge society of tomorrow..



University/Academic: Vrije Universiteit; Amsterdam; Utrecht University; University of Amsterdam; University of Groningen; Leiden University; NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (KNAW); Dutch Foundation for Academic Heritage

Museum: National Museum of World Cultures/Wereldmuseum Rotterdam; Rijksmuseum; Groningen University Museum; Museum Vrolik; University Museum Utrecht; Museum Bronbeek

Societal: The Black Archives; Imagine IC; Hapin Papua Support Foundation; Dutch Culture; Peace Palace Library; Framer Framed, Rijksakademie; Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE) 

Critical Friends: Prof Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape); Prof Mahirta (University Gadjah Mada, Indonesia); Dr Olivia Cunha (Museu Nacional, Brazil); Prof Sharon Macdonald (CARMAH); Dr Larissa Forster (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, Germany); Dr Laura van Broekhoven (Pitt Rivers Museum); Dr Jos van Beurden (VU); Joe Horse Capture (Autry Museum of the American West); Dr. Amber Aranui, Museum Te Papa.

International (academic) Partner: Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Museum Nasional, Indonesia, Center for Anthropological Research of Museums and Heritage (CARMaH); Pitt Rivers Museum.