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Restitution & Research: Cultural exchange at the Museum

9 July 2024

Meet the Expert: Annette Schmidt

For over twenty years dr. Annette Schmidt is Curator Africa at the Wereldmuseum (museum on world cultures) and the Research Center for Material Cultures (RCMC) in Leiden. One of her many projects is the research on the origin of the West Central-African collection of the museum, for which she received a NWO grant in 2021. Let’s take a look at her research and work.

Her interest in Africa began while studying Pre- and Protohistory at Leiden University. The large gaps in knowledge about African prehistory motivated her to do more research. She conducted fieldwork in Mali during her studies. Eventually she led international archaeological excavations and heritage restoration projects in Mali during her PhD research and her position as curator.

Provenance research has always been part of museum practice. Over the past decade, restitution demands have increased worldwide. In order to answer these demands, dr. Schmidt set up the research project “Loot or merchandise?”. 

For this project, she studied the lives of 23 agents of the 'Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels-Vennootschap' and 3.000 objects from West-African countries in the depots of the Wereldmuseum. For each object, she and her team reconstructed how the objects entered the collection. To determine if the objects were obtained voluntarily or not, she examined the biographies of the agents and the types of objects. The biographies allow for a more precise time dating while the object categories are tied to a risk factor of involuntary property loss. The research showed promising preliminary results: instead of 23, they found more than 50 people associated with the Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels-Vennootschap, and the scale of objects warranting analysis expanded from 3.000 to more than 5.000. Once the research is concluded (by the end of 2024), it will be published and made publicly available. This project provides detailed information on the provenance of the collection, and provide a solid basis for more research or restitution requests. Important nuance here: the museum manages the objects, but they are owned by the Dutch state.

This project is just one of many activities by dr. Schmidt. Her activities also include setting up exhibitions and organising events (check out the exhibition on African contemporary art “In Brilliant Light” until November 3, 2024). She researches various groups of objects in the museum collection (such as the Zambia collections and a music instrument collection), while also updating the texts and presentation of the permanent exhibitions to reflect changing perceptions.

"Museums", she notes, "are not static; their stories evolve with society and are shifting from a one-way communication to a dialogue with the public and international stakeholders". Lastly, Dr. Schmidt emphasises that museums have a moral duty to make knowledge accessible for the general public, share it with as many people as possible, and create a platform for knowledge exchange between various communities. This approach helps building the community, and creates more understanding and empathy.

By Florence Bellemont, LeidenGlobal Intern
July 2024

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