Coming out of the woodwork? Colonial wood samples in an education museum, 1890-1940

Duration: October 2023 – October 2024
Subsidy provider: NWO
Subsidy size: 17.500
Remarkable: This project investigates the underexposed colonial history of wood collections

To know whether wood has a responsible and sustainable origin, we nowadays like to look at a certification. This concern with the social and environmental impact of forestry, however, is relatively new. For centuries, both the Dutch government and private companies cut wood on a large scale in the Dutch East Indies and Suriname, often with far-reaching consequences. In this, wood samples played an important role.

Uit goed hout gesneden

Wood samples. Source:

This project examines the underexposed colonial history of wood samples in the depots of several Dutch museums. The emphasis here is on samples that were used in an educational context. In this project, the collection of the Museum for the benefit of Education (now: Museon-Omniversum) during the first half of the 20th century serves as a starting point. The aim is to understand how these wood samples were used in lessons to help school pupils develop a better understanding of resources in the colonies.

Embodied learning

Why were Dutch school classes taught about the products that could be extracted from colonies and how exactly was knowledge about them conveyed? How were wood samples used in embodied learning? Answering this question will help us better understand the history of knowledge behind the exploitation of natural resources in areas colonised by the Netherlands.

As part of a Museum grant from NWO, dr. Didi van Trijp is taking a close look at Museon-Omniversum’s collection of wood samples and comparing it to wood samples found in many other Dutch museums. Through archive and literature research, these samples are placed in a cultural historical context. The research is supervised by dr. Marieke Hendriksen and prof. dr. Inger Leemans. The results of the research will be published in an article in open access.

Overseas network

With its focus on the role of networks in the production of knowledge, this research aligns with the various projects in the history of science at the Huygens Institute. The research also aims to map overseas networks to see how knowledge about wood was transferred from Surinamese or Indonesian experts to Dutch loggers and traders who assembled wood collections.

Natural historical collections as colonial heritage

This project builds on recent research on the colonial context of natural history collections by focusing on collections that were created primarily to create profits for the Dutch state or Dutch entrepreneurs, such as samples of wood, rubber and petroleum, and that formed building blocks for other colonial activities such as infrastructure construction. Study of this category of objects is important to better understand the complex layers of colonial heritage.