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07/05/2022 13:34

Colonial heritage in knowledge production: Paul Basu is the new Professor for Global Heritage at the University Bonn

Svenja Ronge Dezernat 8 - Hochschulkommunikation
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

    The University of Bonn has once again received excellent reinforcement. The internationally renowned anthropologist, curator and critical heritage specialist Paul Basu now occupies a so-called Hertz Professorship in the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Present Pasts". The starting point for his work is a critical engagement with the heritage of Western knowledge production, especially as it is reflected in scientific archives and collections. In doing so, he brings together different disciplines, but also the non-university public.

    At the University of Bonn, Paul Basu will establish a "Global Heritage Lab" in which he and his team will experiment with decolonial approaches to cultural heritage research. This is being done against the backdrop that science has been shaped by colonial structures to this day, and Western epistemologies need to be expanded to include different forms of knowledge. "Our goal is to explore what lessons we can learn from the past as we confront the urgent questions of our own time and attempt to imagine more sustainable and just futures for the planet," says Prof. Dr. Paul Basu.

    Research beyond the horizon

    His overarching approach fits perfectly into the concept of the six Transdisciplinary Research Areas (TRA) that the University of Excellence Bonn established more than two years ago. After all, no scientific discipline alone can answer major societal challenges and the complex questions associated with them. At the heart of the concept are the new professorships named after the Bonn physicist Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894). They are filled with renowned researchers who are leaders in their respective fields and sharpen the profile of the Transdisciplinary Research Areas. They receive 4.2 million euros for seven years.

    "With Paul Basu, we have succeeded in recruiting an outstanding and world-renowned researcher for the Hertz Chair in the Transdisciplinary Research Area 'Present Pasts'," says Rector Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Michael Hoch. "The Global Heritage Lab developed by him will form an experimental space at the University of Bonn, where innovative research and teaching at the interface between anthropology, museum studies and design, involving university museums and collections, will converge and be transferred to society."

    Paul Basu brings anthropological and historically oriented research into discourse with disciplines focusing their perspectives on a sustainable future. "The individual academic disciplines continue to be highly important to me," Paul Basu says. "At the same time, they can produce highly artificial - and potentially dangerous - understandings of the world. We need to embrace complex ecologies of knowledge that also reach beyond the kinds of knowing privileged in universities. That's what will make tomorrow's university."

    Journey into the past brings new opportunities for the future

    For the past 20 years Paul Basu's regional specialism has been in West Africa. He has worked extensively with museum collections and archives, often collaborating with local communities to re-engage with historical materials and knowledges sequestered in European institutions.

    The new professorship is an important component of the research focus Heritage. In this research area, scholars challenge colonial power relations, for example, by examining the origin of collections and their "affordances," that is, what collections offer in terms of potential for collaborative research. In this way, a new way of dealing with and understanding heritage is developed.

    "The decolonization of museum collections and Western epistemologies, which is often merely claimed, thus promises to be transformed into a research practice that is based on multiple global and local relationships and starts from a concept of knowledge that includes non-Western expertise", says Prof. Dr. Karoline Noack, speaker of the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Present Pasts" at the University of Bonn.

    For the Global Heritage Lab, Basu deliberately chose the title Lab. “I think we should be more humble about what we think we know, and the notion of a ‘Lab’ seeks to articulate this provisionality,” he emphasizes. “We are creating a space to experiment, to try things out, to think otherwise.” In addition, Basu strengthens the transdisciplinary research theme of “Present Pasts” with a new temporal dimension he calls “Possible Futures”. “The environment and ecological catastrophe that we are at last beginning to take seriously is a legacy of dominant ways of understanding and exploiting the planet’s resources. What alternative ways of being in and knowing the world were silenced and rendered ‘past’ in this history of exploitation? What alternative futures might we imagine for the planet if we attend to these marginalized knowledges and adopt a more ‘Pluriversal’ perspective?” These are the kinds of questions Basu intends to explore in the coming months and years.

    About the person:

    Paul Basu studied communication design and social anthropology in London and subsequently earned a PhD in anthropology at University College London. As a specialist in cultural heritage, he has previously held professorships at SOAS University of London and University College London. His work has received international recognition through various awards, high-level scholarly publications, and research grants. Among others, he has received UK National Lottery Heritage Fund support for public engagement projects and has been Principal Investigator on large collaborative projects, including funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the EU. Recently, he led the very successful Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project. It dealt with a remarkable ethnographic archive assembled by the colonial anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early 20th century. As well as better understanding the historical context in which these materials were gathered, the project sought to re-think their significance in the present.

    Contact for scientific information:

    Prof. Dr. Paul Basu
    Hertz Chair „Global Heritage“
    Transdisciplinary Research Area „Present Pasts“
    University of Bonn

    Dr. Kim Alings
    Manager Transdisciplinary Research Area „Present Pasts“
    University of Bonn
    Phone: +49 151 464 767 44

    More information: More pictures on the website of the University of Bonn

    Criteria of this press release:
    Journalists, Scientists and scholars
    Cultural sciences, History / archaeology, Social studies
    transregional, national
    Organisational matters, Personnel announcements

    Anthropologist Prof. Dr. Paul Basu is a new Hertz Professor at the University of Bonn. The starting point for his work is a critical engagement with the heritage of Western knowledge production.

    For download


    Anthropologist Prof. Dr. Paul Basu is a new Hertz Professor at the University of Bonn. The starting point for his work is a critical engagement with the heritage of Western knowledge production.

    For download



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