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Research & Collections Programme

Growing research through the convening power of Cambridge’s collections

Ownership Research Growth Network 

This moment demands a bold but nuanced reconsideration of cultural ownership that takes full account of today’s complex, often fraught, political and emotional context. With intensified scrutiny around equality, justice, race, knowledge and legacies of empire, issues of ownership and appropriate location for the objects in European collections of art, artefacts and scientific specimens are more urgently debated than ever. This RGN's first and central seed-funded project, Provenance in History, Theory and Practice, starts with the questions: Where do these objects come from? By what means were they obtained? What motivated their collection? How do the ways they have been valued and researched reflect fundamental divides? And, crucially, where do they now belong?

These are issues that go to the heart of questions of identity and community, the local and the global, addressing the nationalisms, political fragmentation and extremisms that have been such a feature of the 21st century, and which the Ownership RGN seeks to address through its grounding in the convening power of Cambridge’s museum, library and archival collections, and the wide range of methodologies and approaches that bring together researchers, curators, communities of origin, and local and global audiences in a multi-dimensional learning environment. 

Object biographies are traditionally the terrain of specialists in provenance research and the history of collecting – largely directed at establishing legal title, authenticity and value for objects associated with trackable journeys and distinguished owners. Following the UNESCO convention on cultural property (1970), the Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated art (1998), the Sarr-Savoy report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage (2018) and current efforts to decolonize cultural institutions, this formerly specialized practice has become a highly charged arena for research and debate around disputed ownership and heritage justice. The Ownership RGN fosters research that foregrounds key conceptual fields, addressing: the identities of things and assemblages, notably mutable over time; the contentious area of the agency of makers and those who gave away, sold or were forced to sell works; and narrative, raising questions of what stories of loss and acquisition mean, and in particular what the restitution of heritage may offer. This territory is highly emotive for many, and analysis of these strong feelings, in the past and now, will be a crucial ingredient of this research. How were objects understood as embodying or conveying beliefs and values by different owners across the globe and across time? What stories do objects tell about interactions within networks of ownership, collecting and archiving? Now then is the time to reconceptualise provenance research in cross-cultural terms, appropriate to heritage from diverse African, Asian, Oceanic, native American, as well as European contexts.

This RGN, catalysed by the Provenance project, will develop the much larger theoretical structure needed to interrogate vast and intricate cross-cultural collections, building methodologies appropriate to a wide range of representative cultural objects and natural specimens, and doing so inclusively, capitalising on the digital humanities to enable the participatory co-production of knowledge. Shared ownership and shared international copyright of digital information is emerging as a fundamental principle. The RGN exemplifies this new conceptual framework through sustained investigation of significant national and international collections, undertaking research of unprecedented range across regions, epochs and disciplines, embracing antiquities, world cultures, art, library, and science and natural history collections.