Work Package 3:
City Museums and Multiple Colonial Pasts


Who are we?

We are a team of interdisciplinary and multilingual researchers from the University of Warsaw (WP leader) and University of Amsterdam (WP co-leader), collaborating with our associate partners from Fudan University, the Amsterdam Museum, the Shanghai History Museum-Shanghai Revolution Museum and the Museum of Warsaw.


Core Idea

City museums count among the leading cultural institutions expected to respond to the challenges of the twenty-first ‘urban century’, not least decolonial challenges and the ongoing migration and environmental crises. Many city museums around the globe are currently in the process of completely overhauling their permanent exhibitions. In the world of ‘multi-directional memories’, they might decide to act as cultural brokers of entangled global histories, identities, and emotions, but they might also persist in representing more uniform, conventional perspectives that remain closely wedded to national imaginaries and narratives. In an attempt to avoid sweeping generalizations, it is our aim to explore and interpret these current developments with in-depth, on-the-ground research at three recently reopened or refurbished city museums situated in different geopolitical and epistemic zones: Western Europe (Amsterdam Museum), Central and Eastern Europe (Museum of Warsaw) and East Asia (Shanghai History Museum – Shanghai Revolution Museum). We take a broad view of city museums as multi-functional institutions capable of collecting, exhibiting, research, education, and cultural and community-building activities; relatedly, we consider the local and global contexts in which these museums develop and position their activities. We believe that recognizing the ways in which the museums of Amsterdam, Shanghai, and Warsaw work through their cities’ pasts is a crucial step in identifying diversified modalities and challenges for the representation of (de)colonial heritage in the contemporary world.


Our Approach

WP3 is launching in-depth qualitative comparative analyses of the history, development, political-cultural contexts, collections, leading narratives, organizational policies, outreach activities, and reception of these three city museums that represent distinct positions within colonial history. Conducted in close collaboration with museum staff and academics, our research uses the main ECHOES vocabulary as heuristic tools: repression, removal, reframing and re-emergence (see also: Work Package 1). We are also influenced by multidisciplinary literature coming from post-colonial and decolonial reflections undertaken across various branches of humanities as well as within the fields of memory studies, museum studies, and the study of emotions. In our research we combine archival work, on-site observations of on-going work and public activities, critical collection and exhibition reviews, individual and focus group interviews with museum staff and visitors, and old and new media contextual analyses. We hope to conclude our work with a methodology workshop (2018 ), a best practice report for practitioners (2020), new academic course syllabi (2020), a final conference (2020-21), academic articles (2021), and several work-in-progress reports published on the ECHOES website (2019-2021) . In addition, some of us are working together with our associate partners to co-develop internal and external activities within the museums.


Our Focus

We work with one of ECHOES’ key concepts that of ‘multiple colonialisms’. In this respect, Amsterdam represents the Western European imperial situatedness. The Netherlands colonized territories worldwide in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Amsterdam also has the status of being a globalized nodal point through its history as a major trading centre for maritime empires and has also attracted waves of new migrants without direct post-imperial links to the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s local heritage culture is globalized yet still very much ridden with silences and ambiguities. Unlike heritage relating to the Second World War, the colonial heritage of the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, is still rarely made visible or vocalized, although minority activism has indeed succeeded in placing the darker side of Dutch and local heritage in the public eye in recent years. Whatever attention – positive or negative – Amsterdam’s colonial heritage attracts, the picture that emerges is still highly imbalanced. When colonialism is discussed, the trans-Atlantic slave trade forms the focal point, leading to the invisibility of many other contentious colonial structures and exploitations. Some postcolonial peoples, not least the Indisch Dutch, Molukkans and the Indo-Surinamese (who are more visible in other Dutch localities but nonetheless are part of Amsterdam’s multicultural resident population), are effectively invisible within wider initiatives to rethink Amsterdam’s heritage.

Warsaw, in turn, has been selected as a specific case of Europe’s ‘internal colonization’ and a site to apply postcolonial discourse developing within and in relation to Central and Eastern Europe. On the one hand, once part of nineteenth-century imperial Russia, Poland later fell victim to the German subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe, becoming a major location of the Holocaust and extreme racism against Jews and Poles before coming under Soviet influence. On the other hand, Poland may also be perceived as former internal colonizer towards its peasantry and minorities, especially those living on former borderlands of the state (present day Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine). Since 1989, various pasts of Poland and its capital have been subject to heated debates, with the city witnessing the so-called museum boom after Poland’s 2004 accession to the EU in which various narratives collided. Warsaw has become known for commemorating its status as an eternal victim and the scene of atrocities committed against local inhabitants by a series of occupying forces. In public discussions, the Second World War has been given mnemonic prominence over other layers of history (with the most controversial debates being those concerning the scope of local support given to the Nazis in the Holocaust). Meanwhile, the cohabitation with Russians and other minorities over the ‘long nineteenth century’ has been far less recognized, as has the city’s more recent status as a destination for new foreign migrants whose presence has been largely unacknowledged by remembrance policies.

Finally, Shanghai was chosen because it reveals attitudes to European settlements in the distinctively different cultural context of modern China. Shanghai’s cityscape has been strongly influenced by the British and French communities who resided there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These international settlements played an important role in the development of Shanghai from a smaller city in the Qing Dynasty to an important industrial centre and international trade hub. The presence of multiple colonial powers imprinted the cityscape with cultural, artistic, and architectural traces that are now gradually being recognized – and marketed to tourists – by the communist local authorities.


The Sites

The Amsterdam Museum (first opened in 1926 and known as the Amsterdam Historical Museum until 2011) exhibits a wide diversity of objects related to Amsterdam and its inhabitants from the foundation of the city in the Middle Ages to the present. As well as highlighting the Dutch Golden Age (roughly the 17th century), it engages with current social issues affecting communities with migrant backgrounds, first and foremost by means of temporary exhibitions (a recent key example of which being Black Amsterdam, which was shown in autumn 2016). The museum currently has two permanent exhibitions. Amsterdam DNA (2011) explores the history of the city through the four key characteristics of free thinking, citizenship, creativity, and entrepreneurship. World – City (2018) discusses the position of Amsterdam as a global city and its interactions with the world, placing this within a broader – and often contested – history. The museum’s temporary exhibitions frequently give voices to communities that are not always heard within mainstream narratives, of which Black Amsterdam (2016) and 1001 Women in the Twentieth Century (2018-2019) are recent examples. The Amsterdam Museum also presents an extensive program of public activities and educational programs. Finally, the organization is also responsible for Museum Willet-Holthuysen, Cromhouthuis, Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, and the exhibition Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age hosted at the Hermitage Amsterdam.

• Click here to see report #1 on Amsterdam Museum.

The Museum of Warsaw (opened in 1936 in Warsaw’s Old Town; from 1949 until 2014 known as the Historical Museum of the City of Warsaw) having been destroyed during the Second World War was rebuilt between 1948 and 1954. Today, the museum operates through eight branches with its main exhibition occupying several historic houses in the Old Town Market Square. A project called OdNowa, which included the modernization, preservation, and digitalization of the museum’s historical objects, culminated in the opening of the main permanent exhibition between May 2017 and June 2018. All 300,000 items stored in the collection of the Museum of Warsaw have been carefully reviewed and 7,352 of them were selected to be exhibited. Among them there are both works of art and objects of everyday use. The new core exhibition, entitled ‘The Things of Warsaw’ is a starting point for telling the stories of their owners and creators as well as for presenting the events and processes that formed Warsaw as we know it today. In the process of selection, curators distanced themselves both from traditional values of art history and from historical grand narratives. Even objects that could be considered ‘trash’ were included because in the city that had been turned into ruins their value was indisputable. This new epistemology of things sheds a new light on history and questions the national narratives, not least those concerning the city’s periods of dependency within the Russian/Soviet and German/Nazi empires.

• Click here to see report #1 on Museum of Warsaw.

The Shanghai History Museum (SHM) / Shanghai Revolutionary History Museum (SRHM) (Shanghai Lishi Bowuguan / Shanghai Geming Lishi Bowuguan; 上海历史博物馆 / 上海革命历史博物馆) opened in 2018 in the premises of the ex-Race Club, a neoclassical colonial building placed at the very centre of the city in 325 Nanjing West Road. The history of the development of this institution is quite complex. Plans to build the SHM and the SRHM as two separate units started as early as in the 1950s, but it was only in the 1980s that they became more solid. The predecessor of the SHM, the Shanghai History Cultural Relics Exhibition Hall (Shanghai lishi wenwu chenlie guan, 上海历史文物陈列馆), was established in 1983; while the decision to build a SRHM became official in 2010. The two are now sharing the same premises and permanent exhibition. The collection contains 30,000 items, most of which pertain to the colonial period of the city. The permanent exhibition, which focuses on local history, is divided between “Ancient Shanghai” (6000 BC–1839) and “Modern Shanghai” (1839–1949) and takes a chronological approach to describe the history of the city from its prehistoric times until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Besides, the SHM/SRHM organizes exhibitions on different history and art topics. The museum is also in charge of two archaeological units based in other locations in the Shanghai area: the Songze Historical Relics Museum and the Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum.

• Click here to see report #1 on Shanghai History Museum / Shanghai Revolutionary History Museum.