In May 2023, the anthropologist Dr. Alice Hertzog took up the newly created position of provenance researcher at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. Provenance research is the attempt to determine the biography of an object from the time of its production to the present.
Provenance research is increasingly important in the context of colonial collections. As cultural institutions seek to decolonize their practices and respond to restitution requests, it is now essential for museums to know and disclose the origin of their collections. Provenance research can be used to determine how objects may have been acquired, whether in violent contexts, in the context of unequal power relations, or even by agreement between givers and receivers, and can thus contribute to debates about the future of collections.
We often know very little about the biographies of the objects in our collections in the period before they arrived in Zurich. We may know the name of the dealer who sold them to the museum, find a brief mention in an annual report in the archives, or a letter from the curator who acquired them. Provenance research carefully assembles these fragments to reconstruct the trace of an object. Was the object donated? Bought? Taken? Or looted? Who was involved and through whose hands did it pass before reaching Zurich? Although some clues can be found in the museum's archives, this is only part of the picture.
To research the provenance of non-European collections requires a comparative perspective that adopts an ethnographic approach to understand how the circulation of these objects has been experienced by concerned communities. This is a collaborative effort with scholars, cultural heritage experts, and members of the communities involved. What is the significance of these collections for different communities today? What is their potential? And given their past trajectories, how might this unfold in the future?
Dr. Alice Hertzog has already gained experience in collaborative provenance research with partners in Nigeria as part of the Benin Initiative Switzerland. In her new position at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich, she welcomes inquiries into the provenance of the collections, and looks forward to furthering partnerships with various communities.