“Life of a Colonial Traveler: Rethinking the Biography of Alphonse Pinart in the Context of His Collecting Practices”

Marie Hoffmann, Université de Lille

Provenance research of museum collections has developed and gained momentum this past decades especially with the numerous calls for postcolonial museum approaches (Tompkins, 2020 : 18-24). One of the main focus of provenance research has been in revealing the unseen/unheard voices of indigenous people silenced by colonisation and western imperialism.

This goal and processes are rendered extremely difficult by the glaring lack of sources or even mentions of the indigenous makers and collaborators in museum archives and necessitate a much needed collaboration and input from Descendants communities, essential when working with colonial collections. However, in parallel, it also seems crucial to also look at the colonial collectors in the context of their collecting practices at the origin of museum collections and therefore cast a new light on their biographies and the history of western museums collecting.

Indeed, museums, as tools of empire, have been the theater in which to expose not only the objects colonial individuals gathered, extracted and looted but also to exalt colonisation and promote western imperialism, setting up as heroes the men who participated in these processes and provided the institutions with trophies to display (Aldrich, 2009; Ashby, 2020; Bloembergen, Eickhoff, 2015; Falcucci, 2021). In the tradition of evergetism, Museums named galleries after colonial collectors, displayed their portraits and relayed truncated, idealized and sometimes fictitious biographies. It is impossible to deny the political dimension of provenance research and museums and the heritage field (Turner, 2020). As Hilmar Farid said: ‘It’s not simply about the return of objects; it’s about knowledge production. It’s about rewriting of histories; it’s about dealing with past injustices.’ (Mooren, Stutje, van Vree, 2022: 14).

In order to decolonize the institution, it is crucial to reassess these biographies specifically in connection with how the objects came to enter museum collections; ignoring the biographical approach would be the same as ignoring the role museums and collectors played in the colonial propaganda: as Alicia Schrikker stated in the PPROCCe Report, “provenance research of objects with a colonial history must not solely revolve around the question of when and why an object ended up in Museum collections but include a biographical approach to the object, with space for reflection on the changing socio-political context in which the object acquired meaning.” (Schrikker, 2022: 76).

Based on my research in regional museums in North France, and particularly the figure of Alphonse Pinart (1852-1911) I want to highlight how the biographical approach can cast a new light on the colonial context of the objects acquisitions and the institutions’ history themselves. Indeed, the biographical approach can provide a context for the acquisition when the details are unknown, but also highlight the loss of knowledge about the objects and the colonial biases of museum collections.

Marie Hoffmann holds a Ph.D. in Museum Studies and is a researcher affiliated with University of Lille, CNRS, UMR 8529 – IRHiS – Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion. Her research areas include the history of collections and collectors, the history of anthropology and ethnography and artifacts provenance research. Since 2018, Marie has been working in different Canadian Museums and Archives as an exhibition manager and archivist.

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