Universiteit Leiden

nl en

“Heritage and the Question of Conversion”: Internships in Work Package 3B of Pressing Matter

You are invited to consider an MSc internship in our Work Package 3B - ‘Heritage and the Question of Conversion’ - which focuses on the past, present and future fate of colonial collections made by missionaries. This project is part of Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums (https://pressingmatter.nl/): a large-scale research project funded through the Dutch National Research Agenda, and led by Wayne Modest and Susan Legêne (Vrije Universiteit). Work Package 3 on “Value” phrases its main research question as follows: “Through what regimes of value do […] different groups of stakeholders interpret and make claims on colonial objects? Under what circumstances can these regimes and conceptions become compatible?“. Our sub-package 3B, coordinated by Birgit Meyer (Universiteit Utrecht) and Peter Pels (Universiteit Leiden) addresses this problem with a focus on museum collections with a Christian missionary background.


Our Work Package explores objects that are often seen as acquired by a form of ‘voluntary’ dispossession (after conversion to Christianity), yet that many continue to regard as retaining spiritual value. Three postdoc researchers (at UU) are conducting research on objects collected by Catholic and Protestant missionaries in former Dutch Papua as well as different parts of West and Central Africa. While our research focuses on collections curated by the National Museum of World Cultures (NMvW) in the Netherlands, we also include comparisons with other (parts of) collections elsewhere in the Netherlands, and with other missionary collections in Europe or the UK, and with earlier historical and ethnographic research we did in West Papua and West and Central Africa.

Two theoretical problems

We invite you to take part in discussing two central theoretical problems, both rooted in the interface of cultural anthropology, development sociology, religious studies, colonial and mission history, critical heritage studies and art history: (1) The notion of “conversion”, especially in its Christian guise, brings forward the classical problem of translation across “cultures”: the (potential) incommensurability of values. Christian conversion complicates cultural relativism: defining a return to pre-Christian values as regressive (“backsliding”) or regarding “primitive” religion as a degeneration that Christian conversion can reverse requires that we compare values across cultural boundaries.

Moreover, this means we must extend the study of converting objects and values beyond “religion”, “idolatry,” fetishism,” and “superstition”: we also deal with forms of exchange and iconoclasm entangled with secular values of sale and musealization. (2) The Christian assumption of (the need for) religious conviction in converts, who then reject pre-Christian practices and objects, highlights the problem of voluntary exchange. In other words, we question to what extent the agency of giving a gift, exchanging a commodity, or willingly destroying “idols” and “fetishes”, is “free” in contexts of conversion that are marked by structural colonial violence and the imposition of capitalism. The latter problem becomes especially urgent because today, in an age that discusses repairing colonial relations, many talk about converting such object ‘back’ to spiritual values they once carried.

Possible student research projects

Your internship implies that you become part of the WP3b ‘team’ (apart from Meyer and Pels, postdoc researchers Ana Rita Amaral, Marleen de Witte and Amélie Roussillon). From 1 September 2023, you may join by starting to work the following part-projects (but these descriptions are provisional):

  • Collaborative research into stakeholders (spiritual, diasporic, artistic, including ordinary visitors) of missionary holdings in Dutch museum collections. MSc students have already successfully graduated by providing valuable work when we started in 2021;
  • Visitor research and historical ethnographic research into the (reception of) changing ethnographic labels and scenography used at Missiemuseum Steyl, including the relationship between the ethnographic and the natural history parts of the museum (with Steyl curators Paul Voogt and Moed de Vries).

You can also bring in your own suggestions and ideas (contact Peter Pels at pels@fsw.leidenuniv.nl). While mastery of Dutch (active, but also passive) is an extra help, we can also consider relevant research in other countries and languages.

This website uses cookies.