The exhibition "Exotic? Switzerland Looking Outward in the Age of Enlightenment", which will run from 24 September 2020 to 28 February 2021 at the Palais de Rumine, will present a variety of collections from different museums (art, ethnography, history, natural history and history of sciences), as well as from archive centres and libraries. 

The selection of these items (objects, iconography and nature specimens) was based on two, specific criteria: they had to have been collected in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania and/or have been transformed in Europe.  There also needed to be evidence of their presence within the Confederation or its allied Republics in the 18th century. Historical contextualisation work was undertaken to respect these criteria. In particular, it raised the question of the provenance of the items studied.

Provenance research has become more important in Switzerland over the last 30 years at least. While institutional funding is largely devoted to research into works of art looted during the period of National Socialism (1933-1945), the context of colonialism is also addressed as a priority by those museums concerned. 

And this often occurs before the problems raised make headlines. Swiss museums have been questioning the biographies of non-European cultural items since the first half of the 20th century, sometimes resulting in sacred objects and human remains being repatriated to their communities of origin. This heritage issue is supported by research centred around colonial violence and a critique of the asymmetrical relationships - in political, economic or religious terms - Swiss citizens maintained on all continents. From now on, the principles of relational ethics and decolonial practices must be applied more widely to the conservation of source communities’ cultural heritage.

This call to participation thus sees itself as a starting point for the case in Switzerland, inviting international scholars in natural sciences and humanities, as well as museum professionals (in zoology, geology, botany, archaeology, history, history of art and ethnology) to suggest contributions. These should be as much to do with contemporary as historical aspects - both theory and practices - of the general matter of provenance research, restitution and setting up exchange links as well as partnerships with the countries, communities or individuals from the regions from which the collections originate. The aim is to approach the matter in a multi-disciplinary and critical way. This is a non-exhaustive list of the kind of issues we would like the participants to address:

  • Discussing contemporary practices in provenance research: their structure, funding and sharing. Who currently benefits from provenance research? Does talking about transparency really serve the interests of source communities and the collections, or is it part of an initiative to advertise and promote heritage institutions?
  • Questioning the visibility of the projects that examine the heritage dimension of colonial violence. What “reparations” are being offered to source communities, in particular in terms of new, equitable exchanges with the institutions? What inclusive and decolonizing transformations are taking place within institutions?
  • Providing specific examples involving objects held in museums and their connection to the places from which they originated, reflecting critically on this subject and analysing both the benefits and the insoluble limitations or contradictions raised by these processes. On the other hand, could provenance issues provide fertile (albeit somewhat limited) ground for contemporary and activist creativity among artists asserting their affiliation to a source community?
  • Examining current and future acquisition policies. For example, how does the Nagoya Protocol, on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation (APA), affect acquisition practices? In what ways do source communities really benefit from such policies?