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‘Fanatical collectors often have a sense of lack or loss’

Leiden Professor of Museums, Collections and Society, Pieter ter Keurs, conducts research into the provenance of museum collections. This is important for the return of heritage. But Ter Keurs is interested in why people collect at all.

Your book Verzamelen (Collecting) will be published in the spring. What did you research?

‘The psychology of collecting. We all do it to some extent, but why? We know that there are economic aspects to collecting – people want to benefit financially – but it also has cultural aspects. You see it all around you. The desire to possess is human. With fanatical collectors there is often an underlying sense of lack or loss. That can be from the past: a bad relationship with your father, for example. You compensate for this lack by collecting objects.’

What is the strength of an object? Sometimes it’s just a piece of wood or stone.

‘An object can evoke all sorts of feelings. I once bought a figurine at a flea market in Jakarta that was covered in dust. It proved to be a figurine of Tchaikovsky. It’s now in my house. Every time I see it, I hear Tchaikovsky’s music. He’s my favourite composer.’

Heritage unites people. Why is that?

‘There is often a story attached to it, be it real or made up. Most of them are made up by the way. But through these stories people identify with their heritage. They create recognition and social cohesion.’

What’s your opinion on returning heritage?

‘I’m not against it at all. But you do need to look at an object’s history. Only a very small percentage of museum artefacts were looted. But if you say that, you’re soon labelled a conservative who is against restitution.’

What makes art looted art?

‘That’s related to the context of acquisition. If a piece is obtained during a war, it is looted art and you should always return it. The Lombok Treasure, for example, is clearly looted. But not everything that was collected during colonial times was looted art. Pieces were sometimes acquired through the exchange of gifts. You also see lots of newly created objects in museums: objects that were produced en masse for display in Europe and that were also paid for. That is a very different history from, for example, the skull of Java Man. That took a lot of forced labour to excavate. Then there is an ethical side, which makes you lean towards restitution.’

Are all museums engaging equally well in the discussion on returning heritage?

‘It differs. There are still museums that are very set in their ways. I hear them say: “Yes, but they can’t take good care of it there.” But that isn’t your responsibility at all anymore. The objects belong to them. There are examples of American Indians who want their statues back to ceremonially burn them. Should you say no? They say that the statues don’t belong in storage. That was an international discussion at the time.’

The calls to return artefacts are getting louder. Why is this?

‘There are different causes. With the internet everyone is much more aware of where the collections are. And the quickly changing world also plays a role. People face uncertainty and start looking into their own regional history. Regions are becoming more vocal too, also in the former colonies. After the Second World War, the focus was on building up the unitary state. They were difficult decades. Now villages and provinces have much more of a say and we see that with disputed objects. In the 1970s, for example, the Netherlands returned an important Buddhist statue to Indonesia. It went to the National Museum in Jakarta. Now they’re saying in East Java: why Jakarta? The statue came from here.’

Are you involved in discussions on disputed objects?

‘I am regularly on committees that investigate the history of objects. How exactly were they acquired? We sometimes still have diaries and letters from people who were there at the time. Then we study those.’

What insights does your research into heritage offer?

‘It says something about our relationship with objects from outside. Take the introduction of African masks at around the end of the 19th century. That caused quite a stir. We found them frightening, and barbaric and didn’t want to look at them. That only changed after the First World War. That had shown that the West was much more barbaric.’

Ter Keurs will talk at the Dies for Alumni on 11 February.

This is an abridged version of the interview with Pieter ter Keurs. Read the full interview (in Dutch) on page 8 of the Leidraad alumni magazine.

Text: Nicolline van der Spek
Photo: Rob Overmeer

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