Universiteit Leiden

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Danique ter Horst

Professor Pieter ter Keurs: 'People collect to function'

Professor Pieter ter Keurs has spent his entire career studying collecting. Now, he is retiring. ‘I hope the focus on collections will carry on.’

‘I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship people have with objects,’ says Ter Keurs, originally an anthropologist. ‘We consider the presence of objects so natural that we no longer realise they constantly influence us. For example, if I want to walk over to you right now, I first have to navigate around the table between us. That affects your experience of the world.’

Moreover, people like to actively surround themselves with objects. ‘They have an incredible attraction for us,’ explains Ter Keurs. ‘On a Sunday shopping trip, it's almost impossible not to buy something.’

Remarkable phenomenon

The allure of objects can lead to the phenomenon that Ter Keurs, as a professor, has studied the most: collecting. ‘It is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the object-subject relationship,’ he says. ‘I encountered it frequently when I was still working as a curator at the National Museum of Ethnology and as Head of Collections and Research at the National Museum of Antiquities. But it was never my intention to turn it into a research project.’

Nevertheless, almost five years ago, Ter Keurs was appointed professor of Museums, Collections, and Society, also one of the university’s focus areas. ‘We had a very interdisciplinary research group with four others besides myself,’ he recalls. ‘I set up a course with archaeologist Martin Berger, for example, that both archaeology and art history students were required to attend. It was very interesting because it sparked such different discussions. While some art history students still mainly apply a traditional perspective on what “important” art is, the archaeology students from Central and South America in particular are very enthusiastic about discussions on such issues as the restitution of artefacts.’

‘Focus on what we have in common’

As a professor, Ter Keurs also collaborated extensively with the Leiden museums and the municipality. ‘It would be great if this collaboration continued in the coming years,’ he says. ‘For example, if there is a universal structure for “heritage” and “museum studies”, we can signal to the outside world that there is a very strong research group here working with this topic.’

Ter Keurs also believes that museums themselves benefit from scientific input. In his valedictory lecture, he addressed the societal role he believes these institutions have. ‘As humans, we often feel that we are in crisis,’ he explains. ‘At such times, it is a natural inclination to want to escape into the past. That can be wonderful, but I think cultural institutions should also look to the future. How do migration and intercultural exchange influence our culture? In recent years, we have mainly focused on identity politics, in which every group and subculture has its own identity. I would like our next step to be to look at what we have in common. Ultimately, everyone will have to deal with sick family members, and we will all die someday.’ And there are many more things that we, as Europeans, have in common with people in, for example, Africa or New Guinea.

Ter Keurs does not shy away from politics. ‘It's sensitive, but I believe that museums should be much more active in debunking fake news and political myths. If you only focus on heritage, you get a narrow-mindedness that is not good for anyone.’

Disassembling the collection

Even during his emeritus, Ter Keurs intends to continue to focus on these types of topics. ‘I enjoy writing in readable language what we have been putting in scientific articles for years, as I recently did in the book Collecting, the urge to possess. That’s something I can do now without meetings and bureaucracy.’

Anyone who thinks that Ter Keurs will spend that remaining time on a collection is mistaken. ‘For a long time, I didn’t see myself as a collector, but now I know that I like to surround myself with books on topics that fascinate me at that moment. I want to have everything about it immediately, turning my book collection into a sort of intellectual biography of my life. This is becoming problematic now because there is not enough space at home to accommodate many new acquisitions. So, I have to choose which part of my life to part with. That’s very hard.’

The symposium "Changing Approaches Towards Restitution and Return of Colonial Heritage: Tracing Experiences and Identifying Shared Decolonial Practices" is being organised to honour Ter Keurs' departure. More information is available in the calendar.

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