Together making Bonairean heritage belong to the people of Bonaire again

Partnership between Terramar Museum on Bonaire and Utrecht University

Terramar Museum Bonaire ©
Terramar Museum Bonaire ©

Not an English-language exhibition for cruise tourists, but a permanent postcolonial exhibition for and by Bonaireans. That is the aim of a new research project by the Terramar Museum, in collaboration with Utrecht University. History lecturers Gertjan Plets, Christianne Smit and students of the Master's in Cultural History and Heritage, are working together with residents of Bonaire to create a new story around their island's heritage.

Collaborating at the request of Terramar Museum

Gertjan Plets and Christianne Smit are coordinating the project from Utrecht University. Smit explains how the project came about: “It all started with an alumnus of the Master's in Cultural History and Heritage who worked at Terramar. As a result, the museum knocked on the university's door with a request to help think about reforming the museum.” The museum also received support from the Cultural Participation Fund.

A unique assignment it certainly is, Smit thinks. “A great opportunity too. The research project shows that the exchange of knowledge on heritage, decolonisation and public history has added value for all parties involved. Thanks to the cooperation with Terramar, we as teachers and students gain knowledge that can never be obtained in that way in regular education.”

Community Engaged Learning

Together with the museum and Bonaireans, the students will explore which objects really say something about their lives and history. It is an example of Community Engaged Learning: experiential education in which students and teachers work together with social partners on social issues. To this end, the team is conducting research in the Netherlands with Bonaireans living there and in early 2024 on Bonaire itself.

Enora Stam is one of the students who will collaborate with the Terramar Museum. She sees this project as an enrichment of her studies: “My interest in contemporary traces of the colonial past makes this project extremely interesting. The subject of the project fits perfectly with that. In the conversations we have had so far with people from Bonaire, I have already heard a lot of things that enrich and challenge my perspective, knowledge and interests.”

For her fellow student Marije Geerdes, the conversations she had with museum staff were also very valuable: “Not only to bring focus to the assignment, but also to remove uncertainties from us as ‘white students’. We don't want to come across as the ‘Dutch’ who come over to tell us how things should be done. Fortunately, that is not the case at all, those conversations revealed. In them, it became clear to me how much the museum likes the cooperation and that the people of Bonaire are also open to it.”

Kralendijk op Bonaire © Kogelman
Kralendijk on Bonaire © Kogelman

Attention to personal and social aspects of objects

Together with Gertjan Plets, Christianne Smit supervises the students who leave for Bonaire in January: “We focus on four things: first, we delve into Bonaire's history and relevant theories on heritage and decolonisation. Second, we engage with museum staff and other Bonaireans about their views on the museum's role, objects and intended audience.”

“We also dwell on personal and social elements that play a role in such a partnership: what picture do we as students and teachers have of Bonaire, how is that picture formed, what expectations are there? And finally, the students look for possible objects for the museum and present this to Terramar.”

Travelling Terramar collection, thanks in part to this collaboration

Conversely, the approach may allow the Utrecht researchers to make the museum look at its collection in a new way. In an earlier post, Terramar says: “From this collaboration and on the basis of this research, a travelling collection will be created. A new story, a new collection, a different perspective that will tell the story of Bonaire. Accessible to the whole island. The collection will focus on 23 objects, 23 objects that show the connection between heritage and inhabitants.”

The research project demonstrates the added value of exchanging knowledge on heritage, decolonisation and public history for all parties involved.