Laura van Broekhoven. Photography by Phil Sayer

Living cultures

Eleanor Mills, Issue 119/02, 01.02.2019
Laura van Broekhoven, the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, talks about repatriation, decolonisation and contested histories. By Eleanor Mills
“We know that we’re not a neutral space,” says Laura van Broekhoven, who has been the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum for three years. The University of Oxford museum was set up in 1884 and tells the story of humankind through typological displays with objects from all over the world. Many of the items were acquired during the height of the British empire.

The museum exists because Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), a general in the British Army and a keen archaeologist and ethnologist, donated his collection of 20,000 artefacts to the University of Oxford with the condition that a permanent lecturer in anthropology was appointed.

The museum’s colonial foundations mean that many find its displays problematic. Van Broekhoven is very aware of this and is addressing issues of repatriation, decolonisation and contested history.

“Are we really ready for these things to be discussed? We say yes, let’s openly engage with them,” says Van Broekhoven. “We hold these objects and we make sure that the voices that matter are in the room and are given the opportunity of self-representation.”

The Pitt Rivers Museum hit the headlines last year when five Maasai leaders from Tanzania and Kenya visited to view objects taken from their homeland.

“They looked at 75 objects, six of which they saw as problematic,” says Van Broekhoven. The six culturally sacred items comprised bracelets, anklets and a necklace.

“The way these items came into the museum was from a woman who had worked in the Maasai Mara area for a long time,” says Van Broekhoven. “There is only a very brief note with them, along the lines of ‘a well-preserved specimen; a gift’, so that’s all we have a information.”

The museum is working with the Maasai community on the provenance of the sacred items and will then begin the conversation around whether any objects need to be repatriated. Van Broekhoven says it has been a rewarding process, and communication with the Maasai is ongoing via WhatsApp and video messaging.

Around the world

Born in Antwerp and educated in Holland, Van Broekhoven is an archaeologist by training. Her current research is around repatriation, with a focus on collaboration and inclusive inquiry.

“I knew that I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was eight years old,” she says. “I had a teacher who was fantastic at storytelling through objects, and I connected objects with archaeology.”

She fell in love with the history of Mexico on a trip there when she was 18 years old. Her study of cultural history at Leiden University took her back there later on.

“I went to live in a Mayan village on the Gulf Coast and worked around oral history, including jokes and stories,” she says. She was 23 years old at the time and worked closely with a group of young people.

“We hung out a lot – they wanted me to teach them disco dancing and I wanted to learn the local language,” she recalls. “For them, my work provided a moment where they could document, through me, the stories their grandparents were telling.”

The Mayan youngsters were initially reluctant to read Van Broekhoven’s work as they thought it would be yet another academic text, but she managed to persuade them otherwise. They then realised that she was writing what they actually said.

“I wanted to make my work valuable to both of us,” she says. “That was, and still is, very much part of my process.”

After her MA, she did a PhD at Leiden University, spending time researching in Nicaragua. Following this, she got a job as the curator for Middle and South America at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.

“It was a one day a week job, so I did my other four days teaching at the university, but it quickly became half-half, then four days at the museum and just one at university.”

She went on to lead the curatorial department at the National Museum of World Cultures, which comprises the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal and the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. The three merged in 2014 to be joint custodians of the more-than 370,000 objects they hold from across the world.

“The museums that I worked at in the Netherlands were nationals, so that was different from the Pitt Rivers, but we also had 10 times as much money,” she says.

Van Broekhoven left the National Museum of World Cultures in 2016 to become the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum. One of the big appeals of coming to a university institution was the opportunity to focus more on her area of academic interest.

“Research is one of the reasons I was enticed by Oxford, because in the Netherlands we were always driven by marketing and how we get people to the museum,” she says. “Not having to defend researching our collections – the core of what we do – is great.”

Universal subject
 
Decolonising museums is the key issue that links Van Broekhoven’s work at the Pitt Rivers Museum to that of the National Museum of World Cultures.

The Pitt Rivers Museum has retained many of its original object labels, as they are seen as an important feature of its historic displays. The idea is that they provide glimpses into the mindset of the first museum staff, as well as into the history of anthropology.

But Van Broekhoven is conscious that some of the words used on the labels are derogatory and hurtful. In response, the museum is developing the Labelling Matters project, which will look at the issue and suggest ways to mediate and highlight the problematic parts of the institution’s history.

“One of the iconic elements of the Pitt Rivers is these historic labels, which carry the legacy of our founders and the discipline of anthropology,” Van Broekhoven says. “But those disciplines and their language have a lot to do with discrimination and racism.”

The museum is working on how to treat these sensitive issues in the best way possible – deleting the offending items is not necessarily the answer. “How can we mobilise these issues, not whitewash them?” Van Broekhoven says. “How can we make sure everyone feels welcome?”

The Pitt Rivers is a conundrum – it’s one of the most important ethnological museums in the world, but at the same time it embodies the violence, hurt and injustice assocated with Britain’s colonial history.

But Van Broekhoven lists a range of activities that are helping the museum become a more diverse institution. These include a queering the collection initiative; tours by refugees who shed light on their cultures; Messy Realities, a scheme with the Nuffield Health Centre to improve assisted living technologies; and Beyond the Binaries, a collecting initiative on gender fluidity.

The Pitt Rivers has also been awarded £70,500 by the DCMS Wolfson Fund to use digital audiovisual technology to make its photograph and sound collections more engaging to visitors.

Ultimately, Van Broekhoven sees the museum as an empathetic institution where difficult conversations can take place in an environment that welcomes, embodies and acts on change.

“I don’t see this museum as a bastion of colonialism,” she says. “I’m not saying none of the objects are problematic, I’m just saying it’s more complicated than that. There are also brilliant stories of collaboration and craftsmanship. We are all human, and we find different solutions. We also like to make things beautiful. There are so many messages that allow for so many readings.”

Laura van Broekhoven at a glance

Laura van Broekhoven took an MA in cultural history at Leiden University, Holland, where she also did a PhD. She later became a research assistant at the university.

She then joined Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology as the curator for Middle and South America. In 2014, the museum merged with the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal to form the National Museum of World Cultures.

Van Broekhoven led the curatorial department there until 2016, when she became the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Van Broekhoven holds a professorial fellowship at Linacre College, University of Oxford. She is also a member of the Women Leaders in Museums Network and is a member of the European Ethnographic Museum Directors Group.

The Pitt Rivers Museum at a glance

The museum was founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers who donated his 20,000-strong ethnographic collection from around the world to the University of Oxford.

The museum is famous for its historic typological displays – it currently has 55,000 objects on show. The deed of the original gift from Pitt Rivers says that the museum is supposed to keep objects displayed in a certain way.

Nearly half the museum’s funding comes from the university. Other funders include Arts Council England and Research England. There are 43 full time equivalent staff members. It attracts about 500,000 visitors a year.

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