PHD Position: Ownership at its Limits: Military Collections and the Question of Provenance

PHD Position: Ownership at its Limits: Military Collections and the Question of Provenance

Published Deadline Location
15 Apr 13 May Amsterdam

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Would you like to work at the intersection of material culture and critical heritage studies and colonial and military history? Then Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam would like to get to know you.

Job description

This four-year PhD student position is based at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s (VU) Faculty of Humanities, within the framework of the NWA project “Pressing Matter. Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums”. This collaborative, interdisciplinary project responds to the growing contestation over what to do with the colonial heritage held in museums.

This PhD position will be part of a broader subproject (WP2) that explores questions of Ownership in relation to colonial collections in museums, and will look at collections acquired during military campaigns in the 19th century in Indonesia. Exploring collections held by several institutions (the National Museums of World Cultures, Wereldmuseum, Bronbeek Museum and Rijksmuseum) the PhD research will focus on collections linked to the Java Wars (1825-1830), the expeditions to Sumatra (1830s), the Balinese interventions (1840s/50s and then later 1906 and 1908), the Banjarmasim War (1859-1863), the Aceh War(s) (1873-1904), the intervention in Lombok and Karangasem (1894) and the South Sulawesi expedition (1904-5) for example.

Surveying collections and researching the micro-histories of specific objects, object types and collections, this research project will explore the strategies of taking that emerge from warfare, and how this has influenced the different museums and their collections. The researcher will draw on provenance research and biographical approaches, to explore and analyze the historical conditions under which objects were taken, and entered museum collections. This PhD will use existing archival sources, including those illuminating military networks and careers.

This PhD project will seek to answer the questions how and why were specific objects taken during situations of conflict, what was the nature of the power relations that characterized these transactions, and what were the processes that secured such collections for museums, to assess the lasting material legacies that such acts of possession/dispossession represent.

The PhD student will be employed by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands and enrolled in its doctoral programme, which is part of the Graduate School of the Humanities.  This PhD project  will be co-supervised by Prof. Henrietta Lidchi and Prof. Dr. Wayne Modest

Your duties
  • submit a PhD thesis on the abovementioned topic within the period of appointment
  • complete and submit at least one article for an international, peer-reviewed journal within the period of appointment
  • participate in meetings, conferences, and labs organized in the framework of the Pressing Matter project
  • assist with the organization/coordination of the project’s Provenance Research Labs
  • contribute to authoring reports and other documentation in the context of e Pressing Matter project
  • Based on research findings, contribute to the improvement of the documentation of the museums collections
  • participate in the PhD training programs of the Graduate school of Humanities
  • teaching at the BA level or other type of activities in the 2nd or 3rd year may also be required


Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU)


  • a relevant Master’s degree in the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences;
  • outstanding research qualities, manifested in strong transcripts and a high-quality Master’s thesis
  • demonstrable knowledge of colonial/imperial history, heritage studies, material culture studies and/or military history through a university diploma in history, anthropology, or a considerable number of academic courses followed
  • affinity and/or experience with material culture studies and provenance research / Interest in conceptual approaches and ethical issues with respect to museological dilemma’s and guidelines
  • a high level of proficiency in the English language, both in oral and written communication (level B1 - C2). As at least a passive understanding of Dutch will be needed, it is expected that the candidate takes effort to acquire such within a year after the start of the assignment
  • keen interest in critical, interdisciplinary, research methods and approaches;
  • ability and willingness to work in a team
  • willingness to travel abroad for fieldwork, research stays, conferences and workshops
  • strong organizational skills

Eligibility criteria
Our recruitment policy takes into account the individual curriculum vitae of applicants as well as the research team composition as a whole. We seek a diverse team, in terms of disciplinary background, with a solid representation of researchers embedded in / related to countries from where colonial collections originate. In line with this policy, eligible applicants can be of any nationality, but for this position, upon equal qualification, priority will be given to candidates with a strong relationship with communities / countries from where specific collections germane to the specific work package originate.

Conditions of employment

Fixed-term contract: 1 year.

A challenging position in a socially involved organization. The salary will be in accordance with university regulations for academic personnel and amounts €2,395 per month during the first year and increases to €3,061 (PhD) per month during the fourth year, based on a full-time employment. The job profile is based on the university job ranking system and is vacant for 1 FTE.

Appointment of selected candidates: August - October 2021 (late appointments due to COVID related delays, especially in relation to travel restrictions, will be considered)
The appointment will initially be for 1 year. After a satisfactory evaluation of the initial appointment, the contract will be extended to a total duration of 4 years.

Additionally, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam offers excellent fringe benefits and various schemes and regulations to promote a good work/life balance, such as:
  • a maximum of 41 days of annual leave based on full-time employment
  • 8% holiday allowance and 8.3% end-of-year bonus
  • solid pension scheme (ABP)
  • optional model for designing a personalized benefits package


The ambition of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is clear: to contribute to a better world through outstanding education and ground-breaking research. We strive to be a university where personal development and commitment to society play a leading role. A university where people from different disciplines and backgrounds collaborate to achieve innovations and to generate new knowledge. Our teaching and research encompass the entire spectrum of academic endeavor – from the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences through to the life sciences and the medical sciences.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is home to more than 26,000 students. We employ over 4,600 individuals. The VU campus is easily accessible and located in the heart of Amsterdam’s Zuidas district, a truly inspiring environment for teaching and research.

We are an inclusive university community. Diversity is one of our most important values. We believe that engaging in international activities and welcoming students and staff from a wide variety of backgrounds enhances the quality of our education and research. We are always looking for people who can enrich our world with their own unique perspectives and experiences.

Faculty of Humanities
The Faculty of Humanities links a number of fields of study: Language, Literature and Communication, Art & Culture, History, Antiquities and Philosophy. Our teaching and research focus on current societal and scientific themes: from artificial intelligence to visual culture, from urbanization to the history of slavery, from ‘fake news’ in journalism to communication in organizations. We strive to ensure small group sizes. Innovative education and interdisciplinary research are our hallmarks.

Working at the Faculty of Humanities means making a real contribution to the quality of leading education and research in an inspiring and personal work and study climate. We employ more than 250 staff members, and we are home to around 1,300 students.
About the project Pressing Matter
The four-year research project “Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums” is collaborative across five academic institutions and five Dutch museums, and working together with national, and international partners from across the world. The project is led by Prof. Susan Legêne and Wayne Modest at the Faculty of Humanities at VU and funded by the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA).

Pressing Matter responds to the growing contestation over what to do with the colonial heritage held in museums. This growing controversy reveals the need to take into account the polarised positions that now exist in these debates, ranging from scholars, activists and community members championing the return of objects to correct historical wrongs, to those who contend that objects should be retained irrespective of circumstances of acquisition by museums in light of their (universal) cultural and scientific value. In the middle are advocates of more relational heritage practices, comprising dialogue and sharing in how objects are distributed. Pressing Matter has defined various approaches to this problem and categories of collections in collaborating museums that will be the starting point for research.
Researchers start from this shared research framework and while doing research for an individual PhD thesis or other research output, which allows them to develop their own views and insights, they commit themselves to the programme as a whole through a collaborative multidisciplinary approach, which allows access to research findings to the team and requires result based research. The programme has developed this research framework in the context of the National Science Agenda of the Netherlands. A large team of PhD candidates, postdocs, museum staff, professors will be organized along the lines of 8 work packages, hosted in five different universities and collaborating with eight specific museums and societal stakeholders. 


  • PhD
  • Behaviour and society
  • max. 40 hours per week
  • €2395—€3061 per month
  • University graduate
  • 7400


Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU)

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