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Research & Collections Programme

Growing research through the convening power of Cambridge’s collections

Provenance in History, Theory and Practice

Professor Nicholas Thomas, Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology/Dept of Social Anthropology 

Dr Mary-Ann Middelkoop, Cambridge Dept of History of Art & Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum.

Research into the provenance of art works, artefacts and archival documents has long been undertaken, particularly in support of the art market; over recent decades, methods focussed on the documentation of ownership and of transactions have assumed great legal and political significance in the context of the identification and restitution of works appropriated from their owners during the Nazi period, and in relation to antiquities which may have been illegally exported from their countries of origin, in some cases to be subsequently acquired by major art museums. While holdings of ethnographic artefacts in Western museums have long contested, the histories of such collections have been intensively scrutinized in recent years; restitution has been vigorously advocated by campaigners, and cases have received unprecedented media coverage. 

While the political urgency of these projects is palpable, 'provenance research' has often been approached technically and in positivistic terms. Through often painstaking research in auction catalogues and archives, it attends to dates, names and incidents of appropriation. This Network seeks to move beyond this reductionism, proposing that provenance needs to be thought in what in another context has been called 'an expanded field'. An 'expanded' conceptualisation may be at once essential, and fertile, in relation to the heterogeneous collections of natural specimens, scientific instruments, art works, archaeological finds, ethnographic objects, manuscripts and books that constitute the world-class collections of the University of Cambridge Museums and the University Library. In particular, we argue that we need: first, to critically address the identities of works, artefacts and specimens - things are not only what they were but what they have become and are becoming; second, the agency of those involved in their transfer and transactions; and third, the morality attributed to those movements, at the time of transactions and subsequently. This critical work needs to be accompanied by a historiography: we acknowledge the transformative power of ownership, in part through looking into the history of provenance research. 

The proposed programme would therefore aim to provide the foundations for a conceptually sophisticated, comparative approach to provenance studies, that would range widely over collections and histories of different kinds. A conceptual inquiry would be based in a number of case studies, which should ideally range across University collections, addressing ethnographic artefacts, manuscripts, paintings, coins, antiquities and geological and zoological specimens.  The aim would be to lead a sustained programme of debate and enquiry around the concepts and framing of provenance studies and ‘Ownership’ and to develop deep research into the UCM / UL collections.

Nicholas Thomas's books on cross-cultural encounters, colonialism, art and museums include Entangled Objects (1991), which influentially contributed to a revival of material culture studies, Possessions: Indigenous Art/Colonial Culture (1999) and Discoveries: the voyages of Captain Cook (2003). His more recent writings on museum histories and museum practice include The Return of Curiosity: what museums are good for in the twenty-first century (2016). He has been Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge since 2006, and has curated extensively, often in collaboration with contemporary artists. Over 2018-19, he co-curated Oceania for the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.

Dr Mary-Ann Middelkoop is a Teaching Associate and Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art, Cambridge. She has previously worked as a researcher at the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, and contributed to the development of the ‘Looted Art 1939-1961’ database for the National Archives, UK. She is co-editor of ‘The Restitution of Looted Art in the Twentieth Century: Transnational and Global Perspectives’, Special Issue of the Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 52, No. 3(July, 2017).