PhD Position: Digital Traces: Polyvocal Knowledge Representation for Colonial Heritage

Updated: about 2 months ago
Deadline: ;

Would you like to work at the intersection of computer science, critical heritage studies and colonial history? Then Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam would like to get to know you.


Job description

This four-year PhD position is based at the Computer Science department of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, within the framework of the NWA project

“Pressing Matter. Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums

” a collaborative, interdisciplinary project that responds to the growing contestation over what to do with the colonial heritage held in museums.

The candidate will collaborate with experts from different research domains to design, develop and evaluate knowledge representation (KR) patterns and formalisms to allow for a polyvocal representation of heritage objects as well as the provenance of those objects. Current Knowledge Representation methods may result in single-view and potentially biased views on the world. Cultural context and multiple points of view are often hard to represent. This makes them less usable to polyvocal interpretations and radically different conceptualisations. In this project, the PhD candidate will investigate new methods and models for representing polyvocal heritage knowledge, including museum object’s provenance. Secondly, the candidate will investigate ways to elicit this polyvocal knowledge using a variety of methods – including citizen science. Finally, the research will include investigations and development of reusable elements for online and on-site visualizations and exhibitions that can make this information available to experts and non-experts with different backgrounds.

The PhD candidate will be employed by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands and enrolled in its doctoral programme, which is part of the Graduate School of the Faculty of Science (in collaboration with the Graduate School of the Faculty of Humanities). This PhD project will be supervised by Dr. Victor de Boer, Dr. Jacco van Ossenbruggen and Prof. Dr. Susan Legêne.

Your duties

  • Perform scientific research on representing, eliciting and presenting polyvocal knowledge in the context of the Pressing Matter project ontologies as well as on distributed scalable reasoning for these ontologies
  • Contribute to re-usable models and methods supporting provenance research in the project consortium
  • Validate the developed solutions in selected case studies on heritage datasets
  • Collaborate with humanities researchers, artists and other project partners in the consortium on interdisciplinary research questions
  • Write scientific papers for international peer-reviewed conferences and journals
  • Present your work in international conferences
  • A limited amount of teaching (e.g., helping with a lab course, max 10% of your time)
  • Finalise the work in a PhD thesis


  • Candidates are expected to have a MSc degree in Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Information Science or similar field
  • Experience with knowledge representation, semantic technologies, data integration and human-computer interaction are a plus
  • For this project, willingness to work in a diverse and interdisciplinary team is key
  • Affinity with the cultural heritage and humanities domain are required
  • A high level of proficiency in the English language, both in oral and written communication (level B1 - C2)
  • As many collection (meta)data will be in Dutch, a willingness to engage with Dutch language material is a plus


Our recruitment policy takes into account the individual curriculum vitae of applicants as well as the research team composition as a whole. We seek a diverse team, in terms of disciplinary background, with a solid representation of researchers embedded in / related to countries from where colonial collections originate. In line with this policy, eligible applicants can be of any nationality, but for this position, upon equal qualification, priority will be given to candidates with a strong relationship with communities / countries from where specific collections germane to the specific work package originate.

What are we offering?

A challenging position in a socially involved organization. The salary will be in accordance with university regulations for academic personnel and amounts €2,395 (PhD) per month during the first year and increases to €3,061 (PhD) per month during the fourth year, based on a full-time employment. The job profile: is based on the university job ranking system and is vacant for 1 FTE.

The appointment will initially be for 1 year. After a satisfactory evaluation of the initial appointment, the contract will be extended for a total duration of 4 years in total.
Additionally, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam offers excellent fringe benefits and various schemes and regulations to promote a good work/life balance, such as:

  • a maximum of 41 days of annual leave based on full-time employment
  • 8% holiday allowance and 8.3% end-of-year bonus
  • solid pension scheme (ABP)
  • contribution to commuting expenses
  • optional model for designing a personalized benefits package

About Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The ambition of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is clear: to contribute to a better world through outstanding education and ground-breaking research. We strive to be a university where personal development and commitment to society play a leading role. A university where people from different disciplines and backgrounds collaborate to achieve innovations and to generate new knowledge. Our teaching and research encompass the entire spectrum of academic endeavor – from the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences through to the life sciences and the medical sciences.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is home to more than 26,000 students. We employ over 4,600 individuals. The VU campus is easily accessible and located in the heart of Amsterdam’s Zuidas district, a truly inspiring environment for teaching and research.

We are an inclusive university community. Diversity is one of our most important values. We believe that engaging in international activities and welcoming students and staff from a wide variety of backgrounds enhances the quality of our education and research. We are always looking for people who can enrich our world with their own unique perspectives and experiences.

The Faculty of Science
The Faculty of Science inspires researchers and students to find sustainable solutions for complex societal issues. From forest fires to big data, from obesity to medicines and from molecules to the moon: our teaching and research programmes cover the full spectrum of the natural sciences. We share knowledge and experience with leading research institutes and industries, both here in the Netherlands and abroad.

Working at the Faculty of Science means working with students, PhD candidates and researchers, all with a clear focus on their field and a broad view of the world. We employ more than 1,250 staff members, and we are home to around 6,000 students.


The four-year research project “Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums” is  collaborative across five academic institutions and five Dutch museums, in collaboration with national, and international partners from across the world.  The project  is situated in the  Faculty of Humanities at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and led by Prof. Dr. Susan Legêne (Project Leader) and Prof. Dr. Wayne Modest (Programme Leader), and funded by the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA).

Pressing Matter responds to the growing contestation over what to do with the colonial heritage held in museums. This growing controversy reveals the need to account for the polarised positions of these debates, ranging from scholars, activists and community members championing the return of objects to correct historical wrongs, to those who contend that objects should be retained irrespective of circumstances of acquisition by museums in light of their (universal) cultural and scientific value. In the middle are advocates of more relational heritage practices, comprising dialogue and sharing in how objects are distributed. Pressing Matter has identified various approaches to this problem, and to the different categories of collections in collaborating museums that will be the starting points for research.
Researchers start from this shared research framework, while doing research for their own individual research output, including a PhD thesis. While developing their own views and insights, they commit themselves to the overall programme through collaborative multidisciplinary approaches, based in shared access to research findings and result based research. Pressing Matter has been developed within the context of the National Science Agenda of the Netherlands. A large team of PhD candidates, postdocs, museum staff, and senior academics will be organized across 8 work packages, hosted in five different universities and collaboration with five museums and several societal stakeholders. 


Are you interested in this position? Please apply via the application button and upload your curriculum vitae and cover letter until  

April 29, 2021.

 The position remains open until filled. Interviews for the position are planned for

  May 6-7, 2021

; please take them into account when applying for the position. Appointment of selected candidates: June - October 2021 (late appointments due to COVID related delays will be considered).

Your application should be a single pdf consisting of the following documents, in the following order:

  • A detailed letter of motivation, describing how you would approach this research project, your motivation for applying, and why you make an excellent candidate for the role (no more than 1,000 words)
  • Your curriculum vitae, listing at least: Full address and contact details; Education; Professional information and employment (if relevant); Language proficiency; Grants/honours; and Conference presentations and publications (if applicable), names and contact details of two referees familiar with your academic record and research skills
  • A copy of your Master’s degree certificate (and English translation). If you have not graduated yet, please provide a copy of your Bachelor degree certificate
  • A copy of your grades list (and English translation). If you have not graduated yet, please include Bachelor grades and available grades for your Master
  • A summary of your Master’s thesis/project (250-500 words)
  • A writing sample, such as an essay, project paper, or a chapter of your MA thesis, between 3,000-10,000 words
  • For non-native English speakers, a copy of TOEFL or IELTS scores

Applications received by e-mail will not be processed.

Vacancy questions
If you have any questions regarding this vacancy, you may contact:

Name: Dr. Victor de Boer; prof. dr. Susan Legêne
Position: Assistant Professor; Full Professor
E-mail: ;
Telephone: +31(0)20 598 7740 or +31(0)20 - 598 7782 (secretary)

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