Abstract: In the context of debates on restitution and reckoning with the colonial past in European institutions and societies, this paper aims to explore approaches to “decolonizing” audiovisual media archives. The restitution of objects (such as the Benin Bronzes; Hicks 2020) and human remains (such as in the Dutch project “Pressing Matter”) are current, urgent discussions for European heritage institutions. In the Netherlands, these are further contextualized by heated societal debates over Dutch traditions with colonial roots, such as Zwarte Piet, a Saint Nicolas-related practice involving blackface (Wekker 2016). While some argue that such practices are harmless relics of a distant past, others use them to point out the continued coloniality (Mignolo 2002) and racism found in contemporary Dutch society.


This paper focuses on the audiovisual heritage contained in the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (NISV). As a postdoctoral researcher on the EU-funded project Polyvocal Interpretations of Contested Colonial Heritage, I investigate the possible uses and meanings of problematic heritage from the Dutch past contained within the NISV archives. Historical media is not merely an objective documentation of the past, but constitutes images and sounds that bring past events and ideologies to life in the present. Visual and sonic tropes from the historical archive—such as colonial wars, tropical nature, cultural practices from the colonies, and even Zwarte Piet himself—still shape how we understand Dutchness and colonial difference today. An expanded conception of human remains—here in the form of images and voices of ancestors, often made nameless in the archive—further raises questions of cataloging, agency, control, and restitution. I explore how new approaches to cataloging, curating, and providing access to audiovisual heritage has the potential to engage different types of users and foster new forms of knowledge making in line with current postcolonial and decolonial critiques.