Photographs as historical sources for reconstituting colonial collections and connecting histories

Elisabete J. Santos Pereira , Maria de Fátima Nunes

Palavras-chave: Photography; History of collections; Colonial collections; Decolonizing Museums; Decolonizing Archives

Participação: presencial

By analysing the colonial heritage of archaeological museums, this paper demonstrates how images, in particular photography, contribute to understand the past, shaping the present and the future. Colonial collections are usually associated to ethnographic museums. However, due to epistemological issues related to the affirmation of knowledge about prehistory (19th and early 20th centuries), European archaeology museums created this typology of collections. The aim was to establish comparisons with the objects of «contemporary savages». As scientific knowledge about prehistory gradually grew, such collections lost their relevance. Some were donated or transferred to ethnographic museums while others were held in the storage of archaeological museums, remaining as an invisible and uncomfortable presence until modern times. In this paper we will present the first results of the TRANSMAT research project (, funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, which analyses the colonial collections of two Portuguese archaeology museums: Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, Lisbon, and Museu Municipal Santos Rocha, Figueira da Foz. Both museums have collections of objects from Africa, America and Oceania, which are partially on display and partially on storage. We will focus on photographs as important documents to help reconstructing contexts of origin of objects, the actors involved, and the different meanings assumed over time, as well as their circulation within the institutions themselves.


Elisabete J. Santos Pereira (PhD 2017) is a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History (Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities – NOVA University of Lisbon). She is principal researcher of the project “TRANSMAT — Transnational materialities (1850-1930): reconstituting collections and connecting histories” (PTDC / FER-HFC / 2793/2020), funded in 2020 by FCT. Elisabete holds a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science with a specialisation in Museology (2017). She is co-coordinator of the Dictionary Quem é Quem na Museologia Portuguesa [Who’s Who in Portuguese Museology] and author of several articles and chapters in national and international journals and publishers. She was distinguished in 2019 by the European Association of History Educators (EuroClio) and Evens Foundation for her inclusive pedagogical strategy for secondary school students: “Using object biographies to reveal how our pasts are interconnected” (project ‘Sharing European Histories‘).

Maria de Fátima Nunes is Full Professor of History at the University of Évora. She is an integrated researcher and vice-president of the Institute of Contemporary History, where she coordinates the Research Group Science-Studies of History, Philosophy and Scientific Culture (CEHFCi-UÉ). She was coordinator of the History & Science-HETSCI network at NOVA FCSH. She is scientific director of the Doctoral Program in History and Philosophy of Science / Museology and Co-PI on the TRANSMAT project: “TRANSMAT— Transnational materialities (1850-1930): reconstituting collections and connecting histories” (PTDC / FER-HFC / 2793/2020).