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Research project

“Heritage and the Question of Conversion”: Internships in Work Package 3B of Pressing Matter

Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums is a large-scale research project funded through the Dutch National Research Agenda, and led by Wayne Modest and Susan Legêne (Vrije Universiteit). Work Package 3 on “Value” phrases its main research question as follows: “Through what regimes of value do […] different groups of stakeholders interpret and make claims on colonial objects? Under what circumstances can these regimes and conceptions become compatible?“.

Peter Pels

The sub-package 3B, entitled “Heritage and the Question of Conversion” and led by Birgit Meyer (Universiteit Utrecht)  and Peter Pels (Universiteit Leiden) addresses this problem in relation to collections with a Christian missionary background. It specifically explore objects that may have been acquired by a form of voluntary dispossession (after conversion to Christianity) yet may still retain some spiritual value or power. Two postdoc researchers (at UU) will conduct research on objects collected by Catholic and Protestant missionaries in former Dutch Papua as well as different parts of Africa. The research in WP3B will mostly focus on collections curated by the National Museum of World Cultures (MNvW), but aims to include comparisons with the Van Baaren collection in Groningen, collections assembled by the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft at the Übersee-Museum Bremen, and a comparison of such Protestant collections with those of different museums with a Catholic missionary background in the Netherlands (Afrikamuseum Berg en Dal, Afrikamuseum Cadier en Keer and Mission Museum Steyl). Comparisons with other museums with a missionary collection in Europe or the UK are possible, but subject to travel restrictions imposed by the Dutch government and the University of Leiden.

WP 3B addresses two theoretical problems, both rooted in the interface of cultural anthropology, development sociology, religious studies, colonial and mission history, critical heritage studies and art history: (1) The notion of “conversion”, especially in its Christian guise, brings forward the classical problem of translation across “cultures”: the (potential) incommensurability of values. Christian conversion complicates cultural relativism: defining a return to pre-Christian values as regressive (“backsliding”) or regarding “primitive” religion as a degeneration to be reversed implies value comparisons across cultural boundaries. Moreover, the problem of missionary collections also extends the study of values and practices of conversion beyond a narrow study of “religion”, “idolatry,” fetishism” and “superstition”, because addresses forms of exchange and iconoclasm that are entangled with secular values of sale and musealization. (2) The Christian assumption of (the need for) religious conviction in converts, who then reject pre-Christian practices and objects, highlights the problem of voluntary exchange. In other words, we question to what extent the agency of giving a gift, exchanging a commodity, or willingly destroying “idols” and “fetishes”, is “free” in contexts of conversion that are marked by structural colonial violence and the imposition of capitalism.

For more information, contact Prof. dr. Peter Pels at pels@fsw.leidenuniv.nl.

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