Museums and the Colonial Past 3. Museums and transnational moments of the colonial past

Photograph collections are especially rich sources to study the European dimension of the colonial past in different countries. As a corpus, these photograph collections allow us to exceed the frames of those nation states by focusing on colonialisms transnational moments: when colonial powers collaborated overseas in order to compete in Europe. As such they can help us to understand how the colonial past resonates in contemporary notions national citizenship and/or a transnational belonging to “the people of Europe”.[i] Such transnational moments concern, for instance, the organization of colonial labor and colonial armies; the missionary societies that sent their people all over the world; the shipping companies and other enterprises that foreshadowed the emergence of multinational economic cooperation, connected to steel, coal and steam. They also reside in academic practices, like cultural and physical anthropology or geographical explorations. Finally, photograph collections in many respects point at beginnings and endings of colonialism, a process that by its very nature was transnational. Photograph collections connect these moments to voluntary or forced mass migration, to political aspirations and to war. Significantly however it is these latter narratives of migration, arrival  and settlement, rather than historical contexts of such migrations elsewhere, that are privileged by museums, especially at local level.

Yet as the ‘national stories’ presented in this resource show, the processes through which colonial pasts are articulated are uneven and on occasion disavowed. Some museums today acknowledge and explore these many transnational moments that exist in their photograph collections with reference to a European dimension of the colonial past. The University Museum of Bergen, Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford or the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, make colonialism as such relevant in their approach to their own institutional history. This concerns missionary and economic activities in the case of the Bergen University Museum; anthropology and empire in the case of Pitt Rivers; the Dutch colonial civilizing mission in the case of the Tropenmuseum.  The 2011 exhibition in the Tropenmuseum on Ohannes Kurkdjian makes clear, however, that representing colonial society through the work of a photographer can also reinforce silences on past colonial society. In this case, the silence concerns the ambiguity of the civil status of the photographer himself. Was this Armenian photographer in Surabaya himself a “Foreign Oriental subject”, and if so, did the Royal Warrant bring him European citizenship?

Photograph collections reveal how museums not only have been tools of empire, but also worked to turn the empire past into national histories.  They help understanding, for instance, how in the Netherlands postcolonial history turned into a post-Second World War history. In Dutch history, the end of WW-II marks a turning point – whereas in colonial history its outbreak marks the beginning of the end. And this phase difference is at stake in many more countries. To many people, memories of war, memories of decolonization, and memories of migration are entwined. So, the most telling transnational moment of colonialism that colonial photograph collections reveal, is that they include the histories of postcolonial immigrants from all over the world into contemporary European history. As such these photographs challenge the grand narrative of national citizenship made in Europe, and they force us to think of museums beyond the notion of national tools of empire. Photographs in museums enable us to rethink how mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion in society, European as well as colonial, connect with feelings of belonging and estrangement within the contemporary postcolonial societies in Europe.

[i] Etienne Balibar “We, the people of Europe? Reflections on transnational citizenship” [Princeton 2003].