Past Research Themes - RCMC

Past Research Themes

Alternative Histories

Alternative Histories addresses ongoing questions surrounding the uses of the past in the present. This research area explores the relation between history and practices of ethnographic representation, questions of temporalities within ethnographic museum practices, as well as the politics of history, heritage, erasure and memory.

Ever since the publication of Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other (1983), questions about the role of time in the representation of the life worlds of ‘others’ have animated the field of anthropology and by extension ethnographic museums. Indeed, questions about representability and temporality have been one of the contested sites around which much of the critique of ethnographic museum practices have revolved. As historical ‘documents’, how do museum’s collections, most of which were collected in the late 19th and early 20th century, shed light on the lifeworlds that they seek to represent?

This research profile is chosen to stimulate reflection on the role that these objects can and do have in the present. What meanings do they have and for whom? How do these collections help us to better understand Dutch and, more broadly, European identity and self-fashioning? What other histories (whether histories of relations, of knowledge, or of technological exchange) do these ethnographic and world cultures collections allow us to write? Conversely, what histories are being written outside the realm of the museum that can impact the ways we understand our collections and what kind of coalitions can we form to be able to contribute to these history writings?

Collections Histories, Ethics and Responsibilities

The RCMC is committed to the further development of ethical and responsible approaches for the acquisition, care and display of our collections. Collections Histories, Ethics and Responsibilites thus seeks to bring various pressing themes, issues and discussions to productively bear upon Museum policy and practice.

Collections Histories, Ethics and Responsibilities will be an ongoing research program that is committed to a better understanding of how our collections were formed, the relationships that they embody, and the development of more ethical approaches to museum practices. With this focus we are interested in ongoing research on new practices for collecting, preserving and utilizing museum collections; on questions of ownership, authority and access; and on issues of restitution. Moving forward, we will critically explore a new ethics of collecting. What concerns should inform our collecting practices. For instance, should we pursue collecting as a political act? How do we collect the contemporary? What do we want to collect and why? Collections Histories, Ethics and Responsibilities will emphasize methodologies of co-creation: working closely with different stakeholder communities, including people from originating communities and other ‘local experts’. Working with stakeholder communities will form an important part of the research methodologies that the RCMC adopts.


Digitality explores the impact of new information and communication technology on our lives, as well as on knowledge production, data storage and the consumption and dissemination of cultural heritage inside and outside the museum.

Digital cultures have become a focal point for contemporary research agendas both in and outside universities. Researchers are interested in how an unprecedented access to knowledge and new connectivities are changing the ways in which we view and experience the world around us.

Museums are no strangers to new information and communication technology, employing them in web applications and databases. However, research can help us to develop innovative digital tools to improve global access to our collections, and explore new ways for museum visitors to experience the collections. Within a changing museological field, where sharing authority and democratizing knowledge about cultural heritage are becoming increasingly important, studying how digital contact zones or digital knowledge networks can facilitate such practices, especially with originating or diasporic communities, are coming to the forefront.

We are interested in research that might focus on how digital technology transforms hierarchies in knowledge, expertise and authority, whether by reinforcing or undermining them, or on the opportunities and threats these technologies offer in terms of enabling broader connectivity.

Materiality in an Interconnected World

Materiality in an Interconnected World explores the cultural dimensions of globalisation, focusing on the mobility’s of material culture, global interconnectivity, and the underlying power dynamics. It explores how the meaning of objects, styles and aesthetic forms changes over time and space.

In this research profile we are interested in globalisation’s cultural dimensions, and the impact of new technology in fashioning new modes of connectivity. We locate the ethnographic and world cultures museum and its collections at the center of these global movements and relations. Our approach to thinking globally involves studying connectivity and adopting comparative frameworks as we critically rethink the histories and contemporary meanings of the museum’s collections, and seek out new possibilities for making them accessible to our various stakeholders.

Museums of ethnography and world cultures are deeply embedded within histories of European scientific and expansionist ideals. As such they have been key players in a set of global relations and can play a central role in the study of the contemporary interconnected world. These museums were originally mobilized to serve as windows on ‘non-Western’ lifeworlds through collecting, studying and displaying objects from non-Western peoples for a European public. Today, they are important fulcrums around which we can explore questions of material powers, aesthetic and stylistic flows, and questions of colonial trade, exchange, contact and expansion, as well as the knowledge and different subjects implicated in these flows.

At the RCMC, we are interested to contribute to the rewriting of global histories of fashion or of design with ethnographic collections as focal points. Similarly, we seek to contribute to a better understanding of the global dimensions of photographic practices, traditions and aesthetics, and to ask how we can think globalisation’s flows differently, beyond easy narratives of “from the West to the rest”. In addition to these more object-oriented and historical questions, Materiality in an Interconnected World also seeks to address the contemporary global issues that these collections help raise, such as the role they play within contemporary debates on citizenship and belonging. For example, we are interested in the role that these objects can play for groups who feel a sense of place within multiple societies.

Rethinking (Re)presentation

Rethinking (Re)presentation foregrounds our interest in research that critically engages with the politics of representation, focusing on the museum as a technology of representation or on the collections themselves.

The projects included in this profile will focus on critical approaches to the representational practices within these museums over time, examining how ‘other’ cultures or cultural practices have been presented or how objects are collected and mobilized as representative of a culture or cultural practice. Through an engagement with our collections, we want to encourage better understandings of the role that museums have played and continue to play within past and present representational discourses, and to develop new possibilities for more complex presentations of the life worlds of peoples, within exhibitions and other museum programs.

Moreover, we encourage projects that start from objects, whether of art or ethnography, that take representation as strategies of the imagination, where life worlds are expressed in material form. Objects in this sense are collected and studied for the ideas they embody, as materialization of belief systems, and as the people’s strategies for commenting on or negotiating the world around them. Through a study of objects within both the politics of representation and a politics of the imagination we want to understand the meaning that things have in how we structure and understand the world around us. Research projects that pay critical attention to questions of shifting and diverse aesthetic practices, or that rethink histories of technologies of representation, are encouraged.

Text: W. Modest