The Netherlands’ National Museum of World Cultures (NMWC) has pledged to proactively return all artefacts within its collection identified as stolen during the colonial era.The policy means the museum will not simply respond to restitution claims, it will actively work to identify objects that were acquired through theft. Once objects are flagged, the museum will welcome claims from their country of origin, although final approval remains with the Dutch government.
The museum does not intend to place any restrictions on how the objects should be used or managed after they are returned.
Out of its collection of 375,000 items, the museum has not identified the full number of objects that could be returned, but the 139 Benin bronzes it currently holds are likely to be eligible for repatriation.
Three thousand of the bronze sculptures were seized by the British army during the destruction of Benin City in 1897, in what is now present-day Nigeria. The sculptures ended up in institutions across Europe and have been subject to longstanding repatriation claims.
“As heritage specialists, we do not think it is important who is in charge of an object,” said the museum’s director Stijn Schoonderwoerd in the Dutch newspaper NRC. “Our perspective is international, the world is our stage. That is also the reason that we are open to the return of objects that have great cultural or social value for countries of origin.”
“I expect our approach to contribute to the development of national policy in a few years,” he told the NRC.
The conversation in the Netherlands is intensifying, as the Rijksmuseum described the country's failure to return stolen artefacts as a "disgrace" in talks with Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The NMWC's latest policy echoes the findings of a report commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron last year, which recommended that objects acquired from sub-Saharan Africa during colonial times should be permanently returned unless a museum can show they were acquired legitimately.Steps towards repatriation have been taken in the UK. Following a formal request last year by the Ethiopian government for the return a lock of hair belonging to emperor Tewodros II, the National Army Museum has decided to repatriate the culturally significant item.
Originally acquired in 1959, the item has been recognised as human remains and will now be buried within the emperor’s tomb. The lock of hair was given to the museum by the family of an artist who had painted the emperor on his deathbed.
Terri Dendy, the head of collections standards and care at the National Army Museum, led a consultative process to assess the claim. The final decision was reached in line with the museum’s collections development policy and the Museums Association’s (MA) code of ethics.
Meanwhile, Arts Council England held a roundtable discussion on restitution earlier this week. The MA’s director Sharon Heal, who attended the roundtable, welcomed recent developments on the issue.
“The MA is keen to support museums to explore issues of repatriation, restitution and decolonisation in a proactive way,” she said.
“It is critical that we work with our communities both here and abroad to research and open up our collections so that different narratives and stories can be told, including the difficult history of empire.
“We have to be transparent and honest about how collections were acquired and the impact and legacy of colonialism on our communities and our institutions.
“The MA is working with other sector bodies and stakeholders to develop guidance for museums to support them in this work.”
This article has been updated to report that the National Museum of World Cultures holds 139 Benin bronzes. A previous version stated it held 39.