New Europe College
Institute for Advanced Study

Museums and Controversial Collections. Politics and Policies of Heritage-Making in Post-colonial and Post-socialist Contexts
Timeframe: October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2017

Host Institution: New Europe College

Click here for more info about the Project

Project members:

Gruia BADESCU, PhD Candidate (Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge); Departmental Lecturer, University of Oxford
Simina BADICA, PhD, Curator at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest,
Felicity BODENSTEIN, Phd, Postdoctoral fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florenz,
Damiana OTOIU, PhD, Project leader, Lecturer in Political Anthropology, University of Bucharest,
Anna SEIDERER, PhD, Lecturer at the University of Paris 8, Vincennes Saint-Denis,
Margareta VON OSWALD, Phd candidate (EHESS), Research assistant at Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Berlin

Conceived in relation to a wider field of scholarship that has in the last decades interrogated the role of museums in a postcolonial and postsocialist context, the project’s main premise is to consider museums as loci of memory and heritage, but also as fundamentally political places, where the relationships between the past, the present, and the future of a society are forged. It aims to consider a series of topical questions to current museum practice: What is the relationship between the postcolonial-era museum and the “source” communities of the objects exposed? How do/ can post-colonial museums deal with the legacy of the colonial past? What interactions exist between the colonial archives and current artistic practices? Moreover, the research will adopt and develop the abundant post-colonial analysis of museums to the research context of problematic museum collections in Eastern Europe. How can post-colonial studies help understand museums in the post cold-war era? Can similar practices be observed in these museums as they deal with very different, difficult pasts? The aim of the group is to open the possibility of a comparison between the case studies undertaken by each of the six members of the team, including the two associated doctoral students. Studies already concern the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest, the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, the British Museum in London, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, the Institute of the National Museums of Congo in Kinshasa, the Iziko Museums of South Africa, and several national and international networks and associations of museum professionals.

Financed by: CNCS-UEFISCDI
Project’s code: PN-II-RU-TE-2014-4-2368
Contract no: 370/01.10.2015

Call for Application

Rewriting the Colonial Past: Contemporary Challenges of Museum Collections
Seminar organized at the Maurice Halbwachs Centre (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales / Ecole Normale Supérieure) during the 2016-2017 academic year (November 2016 - May 2017), Paris


Organised by Benoit de L’Estoile (CNRS/ENS/Centre Maurice Halbwachs/ PSL), Felicity Bodenstein (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence), Margareta von Oswald (EHESS/Humboldt-Universität in Berlin), Damiana Otoiu (University of Bucharest), Dominique Poulot (Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne), Laurella Rinçon (French Ministry of Culture and Communication/ENS) and Anna Seiderer (Université Paris 8).

This seminar will focus on contemporary forms of rewriting the past through the renegotiation and reappropriation of collections acquired during colonial times on the African continent, which have been preserved ever since in museum institutions. These collections include ethnographic objects, as well as written and visual archives, acquired or produced by or for museums.

These collections, constituted between the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, generate today frictions and tensions. They are seen as spoils of war from which the winners write the history of winners (Benjamin). The collections reflect scholarly practices that have been since then challenged. Collected for scientific, religious and / or political and merchant reasons, they bear the imprint of a conflictual history that is sometimes stuck in a manichean reading of history. In this seminar, we analyse how different social, scientific and artistic practices engage with this past and with its epistemological, political and economic heritage.
Through the input of researchers, curators, and artists, we shall address these practices and processes from a multidisciplinary perspective, opening the discussion to the challenges and opportunities offered by these objects and documents.

Webpage of the seminar:

Call for Papers:
"What do Contentious Objects Want? Political, Epistemic and Artistic Cultures of Return"
International Conference to be held at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Florence, Italy, October 21 - 22, 2016
Deadline: May 1, 2016

Click here for more info about this Call for Papers

Works of modern art, archaeological or ethnographic artefacts and human remains generally occupy separate realms in the museum world. Yet, the growing discourse surrounding claims on certain objects made to museums by former owners or communities of origin unite them in one very specific category. Their status appears unsettled as they are caught between conflicting desires and points of view. By bringing together scholars and practitioners dealing with case studies related to different types of museums and collections, this conference aims to facilitate a transdisciplinary engagement with the issue of returns (a term that encompasses here both restitution and repatriation questions).

One of the aims of this conference will be to ask how we might think about and historicize "contentious objects" as a category in its own right. Might it be considered alongside categories such as idols, icons, fetishes, totems, foundling objects and others discussed by J. T. Mitchell (2006)? What are the social, political and aesthetic dynamics that make objects contentious? How do property negotiations induce profound changes in the value and symbolic meaning of objects and their capacity to impact on post-conflict relationships? How does this process of remaking the museum challenge imperial and colonial constructions of knowledge?

In her foundational study, Jeannette Greenfield (1989) privileged the term "return" over repatriation or restitution, writing that it "may also refer in a wider sense to restoration, reinstatement, and even rejuvenation and reunification". The physical return of objects appears as one aspect of a large set of practices. These revolve around an effective or projected movement that places museum collections in an essentially social and relational perspective, reshaping their rather exclusive relationship with the institution and tying them back to former contexts (Bouquet 2012; 152). "Returns" potentially unsettle not only the object's perceived permanence of place but also the ontological and epistemological interpretations produced by the museum. Practices related to returns can be seen as new ways of asking "what do objects want?" As well as encompassing diplomatic and legal actions, they may also take the form of critical artistic expressions and museum displays that explicitly seek to draw attention to appropriation processes.

We welcome papers that look at the trajectories of specific objects or collections, analysing their agency as contested things. By focusing on the objects themselves, we hope to shift attention away from entrenched, often inherently ideological positions (Merryman, 2006). Focus will be placed on how "Returns" are in fact changing museum ethics and knowledge systems; calling on new actors and forms of curation and "curature" (Hamilton, Skotnes 2014), producing objects with more hybrid or heterogeneous identities that question traditional ontological categories.

Taken in parallel, case studies from different fields and periods will hopefully allow us to approach some important questions: How can we understand historic cases of returns, from Ancient Mesopotamia to Post-Napoleonic France, in relation to the contemporary culture of redress? Can they be related to the evolution of the "guilt of nations" defined by Elazar Barkan (2000) as a post World War II phenomenon? Have the growing number of negotiations around human remains impacted on how we perceive the issue of ownership for other types of objects, i.e. can artworks also be perceived as unique bodies? What do negotiations around Nazi looted art have in common with the legal and ethical questions related to objects appropriated in colonial contexts?

Applications in English consisting of an abstract of 300 words and a short C.V. should be submitted by the 1st of May, 2016 to:

Notice of application results will be given by the 1st of June, 2016. Contributions to travel and accommodation expenses may be available for participants.

The conference is part of the activities taking place within the framework of the Max Planck Research Group "Objects in the Contact Zone, The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things" ( It is organized in partnership with the project "Museums and Controversial Collections. Politics and Policies of Heritage-Making in Post-colonial and Post-socialist Contexts", New Europe College, Bucharest.

Eva-Maria Troelenberg, Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz, director of the Max Planck Research Group "Objects in the Contact Zone ? The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things" Felicity Bodenstein, Postdoctoral fellow, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut Damiana Otoiu, Lecturer in Political Anthropology at the University of Bucharest, director of the project "Museums and Controversial Collections. Politics and Policies of Heritage-Making in Post-colonial and Post-socialist Contexts", New Europe College, Bucharest.

Bénédicte Savoy, Professor of Art History, Technische Universität, Berlin.

Quoted References:
Barkan Elazar, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, New York : Norton, 2000.
Bouquet Mary, Museums: a Visual Anthropology, London, New York : Berg, 2012.
Greenfield Jeanette, The Return of Cultural Treasures, Cambridge, New York : Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Hamilton Carolyn and Skotnes Pipa (ed.), Uncertain Curature. In and Out the Archive, Johannesburg, Cape Town : Jacana, 2014.
Merryman John Henry (ed.), Imperialism, Art and Restitution, Cambridge, New York : Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Mitchell W. J., What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Conference Flyer

Call for Papers:
"Reluctant heritage: Revisiting museums and memory sites in Central and Eastern Europe in a transnational perspective"
Bucharest, CEREFREA, 4-5 November 2016
Deadline: September 15th 2016

Click here for more info about this Call for Papers

A troubled and segmented East-European history has given rise to a troubled and segmented museum history. Museums in Central and Eastern Europe have found themselves, time and again, faced with difficult and uncomfortable choices. Immediately after the Second World War, museums had to update their exhibitions in order to narrate radically different stories. One of the major changes also included exhibiting the socialist present, such as the accomplishments of the regime, and the recent past: the violent, revolutionary coming to power of communist parties all over Eastern Europe became part of the permanent exhibition of local and national museums. Museums also had to literally hide entire collections that were suddenly found inappropriate. After the fall of communism, these collections were brought back to museum halls (although much of their history, documentation and context had been lost) and it was time for the communist collections to become bothersome and thus be hidden or even destroyed.

The workshop seeks to explore the specificities of reaction to political and social change in the context of museums and heritage sites. Museums could be considered in terms of their historiographic and political foundations, as the outcome of mobilizations of a wide variety of actors who have contributed to their creation or their dismantling (museum professionals, architects, academics, public historians, victims’ associations and other cultural brokers). In some contexts, the heritage process has contributed to a discursive criminalisation of previous regimes – for instance the transformation of detention centres in museums or memory sites. In others, it has facilitated implicit forms of rehabilitation, under the guise of commercially exploiting the legacy – architectural, artistic, political – of the former regime. Finally, a significant number of museums and memory sites were faced with the challenge and task of reinvesting their collections with a new meaning and a new narrative, framed in new historiographies and nation-building projects.

Within this framework, our workshop will bring together contributions that respond to one or more of the following aspects, relating to the central concern on whether museum displays and heritage sites have been remade to conform to new scientific and political narratives/ agendas:

- will examine case-studies of metamorphoses of East-European museums and built heritage during the Cold War and in post-communism.
- will discuss whether museums are sometimes in the vanguard of social and political change or are they merely reacting to societal transformations.
- will analyse how museums and heritage sites have been mobilized to qualify, and at times to criminalize the socialist period
- will seek to highlight the emergence and circulation of heritage models at national, regional and trans-regional levels, evident in the museums established in former detention centres, in the management of heritage assets related to past dictatorial regimes, and in the reconfigurations of exhibitions in museums around the area.
- will expand the debate by bringing case-studies of transnational processes going beyond the European borders (with a particular interest in Latin America)
- will bring theoretical and methodological insights into the study of processes of heritage-making from a transnational perspective.

Please submit 300-word abstracts and a short bio (in English or in French) to by September 15th. The successful participants will be notified by September 20th.

While the conference will be bilingual, in English and French, no simultaneous translation will be provided.

Funds are available to cover the expenses (travel or accommodation) for a limited number of participants. Please indicate in your paper proposal whether you will be seeking this funding.

Gruia Bădescu, University of Oxford
Simina Bădică, the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant
Nelly Bekus, University of Exeter
Damiana Oțoiu, University of Bucharest

The workshop is organized by the Regional Center for Advanced Francophone Research in Social Sciences (CEREFREA Villa Noël), University of Bucharest

and supported by the following institutions and projects:
- Museums and Controversial Collections. Politics and Policies of Heritage-Making in Post-Colonial and Post-socialist Contexts project of the Romanian National Authority for Scientific Research and Innovation, CNCS – UEFISCDI, project number PN-II-RU-TE-2014-4-2368, New Europe College, Bucharest.
- AHRC (Care for the Future) - Labex Pasts in the Present joint funded project The Criminalization of Dictatorial Pasts in Europe and Latin America in Global Perspective, University of Exeter and Institut des Sciences Sociales du Politique, Paris (ANR-11-LABX-0026-01)
- Political Science Department, University of Bucharest.

Doctoral Summer School in Urban Anthropology
Heritage-making, Uses and Museumification of the Past in Relationship to Nation-building

French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IFEA), Istanbul, Turkey (June 26th- July 9th 2016)


The process of heritage-making in the context of a nation (re)building is multifaceted. In periods of historical transition, challenges are many and the fragility of the political context is fertile ground for revisiting the representation of the past. To understand these processes, an interdisciplinary engagement with contributions from history, anthropology, archeology, political science, art history and museology is necessary. Interdisciplinary collaboration, however, is not always easy to establish within the existing research institutional framework, built around separate disciplines. The main goal of this summer school is to create a doctoral training space and interdisciplinary exchange between researchers working on heritage- making process, uses and "museumification" of the past in connection with nation-building, or, more broadly, the construction of identities.

The school has a double aim. First, a scientific aim: to reflect on the heritage making process, on the uses and the "museumification" of the past related to nation-building, especially in the post-colonial and post-dictatorial contexts as well as after political conflicts. Second, the school has an educational aim: to enable students to practice various methods of research in the social sciences in a short ethnographic field trip.

The school has several components:

  • courses taught by lecturers from partner institutions, but also by invited lecturers. The courses will cover both the methodology of research and the four main themes of the summer school, namely: 1. Urban policies and politics of memory, 2. Museographies, 3. Contemporary artistic practices, 4. Archaeological practices.

  • a practical workshop of visual anthropology.

  • guided tours of the city (public and private museums, contemporary art galleries, areas affected by contemporary transformations).

  • field research project: teams of three students will conduct a field research project (interviews, participant observation research in the central or local national / private archives, etc.).

  • a workshop of curatorial practice covering practices in the design of an exhibition, from the museographic project to the development of partnerships and mediation.

  • The summer school will end with the presentation of results of this preliminary research in a form chosen by the PhD researchers: an oral presentation, a scientific poster, a photo / multimedia exhibition (excerpts from interviews, video material), a documentary film project or a happening in a museum / artist's studio.

  • Program

    Places of Amnesia: An Interdisciplinary perspective on forgotten pasts

    University of Cambridge, April 5-6, 2016


    In April 2016, the Museums and Controversial Collections project contributed to the organization of the conference Places of Amnesia: An Interdisciplinary perspective on forgotten pasts at the University of Cambridge. Gruia Badescu, one of the project members, has been one of the initiators and conveners of the Places of Amnesia interdisciplinary research group at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. In 2014/2015, Places of Amnesia hosted twelve seminars on various instances of forgetting, featuring diverse speakers such as Andrew Herscher, Marianne Hirsch, Wulf Kansteiner, Emiliano Perra and Xun Zhou. With the support of the Museums and Controversial Collections project, on 5th and 6th April 2016, the Places of Amnesia group organized its first international, interdisciplinary conference at the University of Cambridge: Places of Amnesia: An Interdisciplinary perspective on forgotten pasts. Gruia Badescu was one of the four conveners, alongside Daria Mattingly, Elena Zezlina and Maria Ana Correia, all PhD students at the University of Cambridge.

    The conference brought together over 80 researchers from 20 countries who discussed topics related to how societies forget and sought to establish whether specific sites (people, events, knowledge) could be viewed as places of amnesia, in diaologue with Nora’s lieux de mémoire. It focused on a number of overarching questions, interrogating collective memory understood as a social discursive practice: How do the intersections of personal biography with historical events influence the way in which social groups remember and forget? How do museums, ceremonies, and public events filter memory and amnesia? The aim was to encourage new and creative insights and contributions to memory studies, and indeed pave the way for a new focus on amnesia studies.

    The keynote speakers were Professor Carlo Ginzburg (UCLA/University of Pisa) and Professor Paul Connerton (University of Cambridge). The conference featured a diverse set of panels, including Marginalized Memories and Taboo Heritage, Holocaust Sites Between Memoryscapes and Places of Amnesia, Place, Memorials and Post­Socialist Amnesia, Erasures and Appropriations etc. Furthermore, the conferences included a methodology workshop for PhD students, led by Professor Ginzburg. Two other Museums project members took part, Damiana Otoiu, who chaired the panel on Post­Colonial Amnesia and Felicity Bodenstein, chair for the Art of Amnesia panel. In addition to the ‘Museums and Controversial Collections. Politics and Policies of Heritage-Making in post-colonial and post-socialist Contexts’ project, the event was also supported by grants provided by the Cambridge School of Arts and Humanities and the Centre for Doctoral Training (previously Centre for East European Language Based Area Studies).


    Înspre global: Experții socialiști în timpul Războiului Rece (anii 1960-1980)
    Perioada proiectului: 1 Octombrie 2015 - 30 Septembrie 2017

    Echipa de proiect:

    Bogdan C. IACOB: director de proiect (cercetător post-doctoral, Institutul de Istorie, Academia Maghiară de Științe)
    Raluca GROSESCU: cercetător (cercetător asociat, Department of History, University of Exeter)
    Corina DOBOȘ: cercceetător (cercetător asociat, Facultatea de Istorie, Universitatea din București)
    Viviana IACOB: asistent de cercetare (drd., Școala doctorală de Studii Literare și Culturale, Universitatea din București)
    Vlad PAȘCA: asistent de cercetare (drd., Facultatea de Istorie, Universitatea din București)


    Relațiile dintre experții socialiști și instituțiile internaționale, și rolul acestor relații în transferurile structurale dinspre global spre contextele naționale sunt prea puțin cercetate. Un univers de instituții, comunități, conferințe, publicații și arhive rămâne uitat în umbra Războiului Rece. Proiectul este o contribuție la studiul dimensiunii globale a regimurilor comuniste est-europene în perioada de după 1945, cu România ca punct de plecare.
    Obiectivul general al proiectului este identificarea și explorarea contribuției aduse de experții socialiști la dezbaterile și dezvoltările instituționale pe plan internațional, în cadrul a cinci domenii de cunoaștere (economie, drept, demografie, teatru și studii istorice), pe parcursul a trei decenii (1960-1980). Analizăm și impactul pe care aceste interacțiuni îl exercită asupra procesului de transformare a diferitelor regimuri comuniste (în primul rând cazul României dar permanent urmărind contextul regional).
    Instituții internaționale: Comisia Economică a O.N.U. pentru Europa, Asociația Economică Internațională, Comisia de Populație a O.N.U., Asociația Internațională pentru Studii Sud-est Europene a U.N.E.S.C.O., Comitetul Internațional pentru Studii Istorice și Institutul Internațional de Teatru).
    Evenimente-reper ale dezbaterile internaționale din epocă: de exemplu, Convenția O.N.U. asupra imprescriptibilităţii crimelor de război şi a crimelor contra umanităţii din 1968 sau Conferința Mondială a Populației, 1974.
    Principala noastră abordare metodologică constă în perspectiva transnațională și interdisciplinară a istoriei postbelice globale.

    Proiect finantat de: CNCS-UEFISCDI
    Cod proiect: PN-II-RU-TE-2014-4-0335
    Nr. contract: 2/1.10.2015

    Workshop: „Populație și dezvoltare.” Teorii ale populației în timpul Războiului Rece. O perspectivă românească - 16 martie 2016, ora 11.00, Centrul de Studiere a Populației, Cluj-Napoca