New online photographic resource opens window on Europe's colonial legacy

17 July 2012

An international research project looking at the photographic records of Europe’s colonial past has launched a website today.

The project called PhotoCLEC is researching how colonial photographs have been used, engaged with and experienced by both museums and their audiences.

Its new website (http://photoclec.dmu.ac.uk) explores the different ways in which photographs from the colonial past have been used by museums, as spaces of public history, to communicate and interpret the colonial past in a postcolonial and multicultural Europe.

Researchers examined practices and collections in a wide range of institutions in the UK, the Netherlands and Norway.

The focus on photograph collections enabled the researchers to trace the patterns of ‘nationalizing’ the colonial past as expressed in different narratives related to the three countries.

Using photographs the research has revealed similarities and differences in the ways in which different European nations have addressed and visualised (or failed to do so) this formative past within national and European historical narratives.

The project has been led by Professor Elizabeth Edwards of De Montfort University (DMU), who said of the resource: “Our aim has been a comparative understanding of the mechanisms through which public histories of the colonial past work, because these go to the heart of the way contemporary European identities are negotiated.

“We used the photographic legacy as the prism through which to explore these issues because the visual record has a complicated immediacy that sits, often unacknowledged, at the centre of the ways in which contemporary history is imagined.

“Our extensive interviews with curators and other relevant stakeholders, have contributed to a better understanding of the rich potential of photograph collections to re-establish relationships between national and European history, and to acknowledge Europe’s multiple colonial past as a relevant force in contemporary society.

“The website is designed as a didactic tool for practitioners and students in the field, introducing key themes which get little or no airing elsewhere.”

In the UK the focus has been on a study of museum practices at the intersection of photograph collections and the colonial past.

Under the title “Photographic Heritage: ‘Difficult’ Histories and Cultural Futures”, led by Professor Edwards, it has addressed issues of the management and representation of ‘the colonial past’ in UK museums.

It looks at the contexts of, on the one hand, the specifics of UK cultural politics and state-managed multiculturalism, and on the other hand, within PhotoCLEC’s comparative frame.

In the Netherlands, “Indies Images of the Colonial Everyday in a Multi-ethnic Postcolonial Society”, focused on the histories represented in the Dutch and Indo-Dutch photographic legacy of colonialism.

The starting point has been the 60.000 photographs collected in an Indo-Dutch photograph collections created after decolonization by IWI (Indisch Wetenschappelijk Instituut, or Indo-Dutch Scientific Institute). These photographs had been digitized, and the originals donated to the Tropenmuseum.

The Norwegian project, “Foreign and Home Images of Unacknowledged Colonial Legacies” explored how the photographic legacy of the specific Norwegian colonial-style and colonial related activities are  addressed in museums and archives. It also traced patterns of competing histories and outline key theoretical and analytical frameworks.

A major achievement of PhotoCLEC has been to bring into question the way ‘the colonial’ works as a category in museums, and the work of photographs in bringing these problems of inclusion or exclusion to the surface.

This enabled a comparative debate on photographs and the workings and effects of colonial nostalgia. Both colonial disavowal and colonial engagement were at stake in the three PhotoCLEC countries, creating a peculiar memory take on national historiography.

The project saw how in some instances, (as in the case of the Sami in Norway) colonial photographs were deliberately not put on display in order to allow for new interpretations of their past society and culture beyond colonial visual legacies.

In other cases (as in the case of the Indo-Dutch communities in the Netherlands) collecting and interpreting photographs from the colonial past was chosen as a strategy to empower the immigrant minority group.

Across the three European countries studied, there was a marked difference in the willingness of museums to engage with the centrality of the colonial past in European history and identity. Much of this, the researchers found, depends on the ways in which ‘the colonial’ is constructed in the public imagination and degree to which both European and ‘ethnic minority and immigrant groups’ wished to position the colonial past as a shared history, and the level of willingness to confront its challenges.