Jos van Beurden Nanette Snoep (Sektionsleitung)

Decolonisation of colonial collections: A shifting debate in Europe

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The exhibition ‘German colonialism: Fragments, pasts and present’ in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin[1], the repatriation of colonial human remains by the Dresden State Art Collections in the Free State of Sachsen to Hawaii[2] and the investigation by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of ten colonial objects[3] are as much indications of the emerging debate about the decolonisation of colonial collections as the heart-cry of a curator of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren to ‘defend’ such collections against the ‘enemy’ in Africa and Europe who wants to empty Europe’s museums[4] or the complaint of the Linden Museum in Stuttgart about the forced link between provenance research and restitution.[5]

There have been some returns of colonial objects in the 1970s and 1980s, both incidental ones of single objects or collections and bilateral agreements about larger quantities but these have not ended the issue of the future of colonial objects. This debate varies in intensity in former colonies. Several African countries (e.g. Nigeria, Benin and Ethiopia), Asian countries (e.g. China) and some South American countries (e.g. Peru and Mexico) are rather outspoken, while other priorities dominate in others. For many governments and heritage institutions in Europe this debate has remained a blind spot.

To discuss the decolonisation of colonial collections is complicated and easily arouses emotions. Many people have opinions about it. Professionals in the heritage sector can have an interest in downgrading the importance of the issue. The interest of former colonies can be to enlarge numbers of lost relics. In this debate, historians have a role. They have learnt to do thorough provenance research and can be a sound board for museum professionals.

In this session historians and museum professionals will offer different perspectives on the decolonisation of colonial collections and on the European nature of the debate about it. Some are more general, others have the nature of case-studies. One contribution will answer how former European colonial powers, when confronted with claims from former colonies for the return of objects, related with each other. Was there an informal cooperation among European states to obstruct claims of former colonies (Susan Legêne)? Another contribution will go into the question whether (or to what extent) the dialogue about the future of colonial collections is a European matter, a matter of individual nations or one of non-state actors. It will discuss the role of provenance research (Jos van Beurden). A third contribution will look at the different layers in repatriation, using the example of a Danish nurse who donated ritual objects belonging to the Yaqui (Mexico/USA) to the Wolrd Museum in Sweden, early in the 20th cenutry (Adriana Muñoz). In a fourth contribution, restitution is discussed as being not the end but the beginning of a new relationship, with the Benin Dialogue and the restitution of human remains to Hawaii as examples, therewith raising the questions as what is a dialog and what could ‘shared ownership’ truly mean  for museums in Europe and source-societies (Nanette Snoep). The final contribution will summarise the previous ones in the sense that it answers whether this renewed debate about decolonisation of colonial collections occurs in a conjunction, in a specific moment (Wayne Modest).

[1] The exhibition ran from October 2016 until May 2017.

[2] (October 30, 2017)

[3] (October 14, 2017)

[4] (September 26, 2017)

[5] (October 10, 2017)

Susan Legêne (Amsterdam)
Speaking with one voice - How the Western European post-colonial States Parties aligned their stake concerning the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
Jos van Beurden (Amsterdam)
The decolonisation of colonial collections: A European or a national challenge?
Adriana Muñoz (Göteborg)
Different layers in repatriation: The case of the Yaqui treasures
Nanette Snoep (Dresden)
"Restitution and what next?" About restitution as the beginning of a new relationship
Wayne Modest (Leiden)
(Post)Colonial Conjunctures or What to do with "Colonial Collections" in Europe today