PhotoCLEC – Colonial photography and contemporary Europe – announcing a new project

A note from Prof. Elizabeth Edwards (University of the Arts) announcing her latest collaborative project:
A grant of €463,000 over 18 months awarded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area) for a project entitled ‘Photographs, Colonial Legacy and Museums in Contemporary European Culture’ to examine the role of the photographic legacy of colonial relations in the identity of a fluid and multi-cultural modern Europe and its global relations.
This international project, undertaken with colleagues in The Netherlands and Norway focuses specifically on the way in which such photographs are used in museums, the latter being major disseminators of historical narrative in the public domain. PhotoCLEC is especially concerned with the patterns of visibility of their colonial past in the processes through which contemporary European cultures configure their pasts for the benefit of their futures.
Importantly the comparative nature of the project is underpinned by other important questions: how do differently constituted colonial experiences translate into differently nuanced visual legacies and how do these visual legacies resonate through differently shaped post-colonial experiences? How do photographs articulate a European cultural history, rooted both in and outside Europe, which is actively moving across cultural boundaries, making new meanings in newly configured national and transnational communities in a global environment.
PhotoCLEC comprises linked projects in three European countries with very different colonial experiences to compare and contrast their visual legacies in contemporary societies. UK and The Netherlands were major colonial powers but with different ‘styles’ of colonial engagement and different patterns of de-colonisation and post- colonial engagement at home and abroad. Norway, though not a colonial power in the territorial sense, was engaged with extensive ‘colonial-derived’ activities e.g. exploration, science and missions, and has colonial-style issues over Sami histories, adding an important and expansive dimension to the project. These histories have collectively left extensive visual legacies in the institutions of the three countries, patterned by different institutional approaches in universities, local authorities and government institutions.
Thus the UK project, “Photographic Heritage, ‘Difficult’ Histories and Cultural Futures”, undertaken by Elizabeth Edwards and Matt Mead, explores the intersection of the ‘management of multi-culturalism’ as it is experienced in museums with the ‘invisibility’ of narratives of the colonial past. Working with a number of museums, it is exploring the extent to which new historiographical thinking about photography, presence and agency, which decentres the purely instrumental and ideological reading of photography to ask how can this impact on the ways in which these photographs can be engaged with, indeed how and should they be engaged with? What space do colonial photographs, from for instance, anthropological fieldwork to railway construction and tourist souvenirs, occupy in these debates and under what conditions? This does not make the histories which they both constitute and are constituted through any easier but, in photographic terms, they should be more widely debated because they represent relationships which are fundamental to the experience of contemporary Europe and which will figure in its futures. It is possible, given popular perceptions of colonialism and the everyday experience of post-colonial culture in the UK, that the photographs are perceived as being historical sources too disturbing to be engaged with within museum domains, which raises important questions about the patterns of forgetting.
In the Netherlands, Susan Legêne is leading the project ‘Indies Images of the Colonial Everyday in a Multi-ethnic Postcolonial Society’ focuses in particular on Indo-Dutch photograph collections that were collected after decolonization by IWI (Indisch Wetenschappelijk Instituut, or Indo-Dutch Scientific Institute). IWI was founded by people of mixed Indonesian-European descent (the Indo-Dutch), who, after Indonesia’s Independence in 1945 migrated to the Netherlands. These postcolonial immigrants brought hundreds of family albums and thousands of single photographs from colonial Indonesia to the Netherlands as personal memories. Through the making of this archive, the Indo-Dutch community form a ‘community of memory’ that both creates memories and performs as a social memory frame that contextualizes the memories it creates.
Consequently the project asks how these visual sources of an Indo-Dutch colonial everyday affect the more ‘formal’ collections of colonialism that were created by Dutch cultural institutions during the colonial time. What does the IWI-collection mean both in historical discourses on the colonial past, and in the making of Dutch post colonial immigration society and today’s multiculturalism? Starting from the ‘social biography’ of the IWI collection, it investigates the meaning of colonial photography in postcolonial identity formation, social memory and museum policies. How do these colonial photographic legacies interact with other memory texts and how are these visual sources interwoven in the national ‘texture of memory’?
In Norway, the patterns or colonial memory and forgetting are very different, creating a useful contrast to the two other PhotoCLEC projects. Seen in the context of the larger history of European colonialism, Norway has often been regarded as an exception, a small and innocent country that itself was the victim of several hundred years of Danish and Swedish colonisation. This conception has however recently been challenged. During the second half of the 19th century, Norwegian shipping also played an important part in the development of the expansive, global trade. The opportunity to travel widely over the world oceans made it possible for Norwegians to engage in colonial-derived activities as tradesmen, missionaries and explorers. Further, an internal process of colonisation had begun as early as the medieval period, with the Norwegian expansion into and takeover of the Sami areas in the North. The photographic legacies of these multiple cultural dynamics are the focus of the Norwegian project entitled ‘Foreign and Home Images of Unacknowledged Colonial Legacies’. A key question for the team lead by Sigrid Lien of the University of Bergen, concerns the ways in which these processes and their photographic legacies have an impact in the constitution of ‘Norway’ itself and how this can be related to the wider European cultural experience of the colonial and its post-colonial impacts.
The project runs until January 2012, when there will be a two day symposium to launch the results and to expand the debate yet further (I notice will be posted on MaterialWorld soon). It is intended to produce an open access web platform for PhotoCLEC’s results and a series of ‘case studies’ which merge academic debate and curatorial concerns, and is aimed especially at museum and heritage sector professionals, but also at a wider audience interested in the construction and representation of histories in modern Europe. We are all still in the fieldwork stage, however already very different patterns of visibility and invisibility are emerging strongly linked to specific patterns of national narrative and the political management of the post-colonial state.
The PhotoCLEC team would welcome comments or thoughts.

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