The Dutch government has promised to create a new policy on restitution, after an official report urged the unconditional return of looted museum objects to their countries of origin.
A committee set up by the Netherlands’ culture minister said taking responsibility for the country’s colonial past should be a “key principle” of museum policy. This includes recognising injustices done to the local populations of former colonial territories and being willing to rectify these, the report said.
Ingrid van Engelshoven, the country’s minister of education, culture and science, has accepted the report’s central arguments and promised a “comprehensive policy response” in the near future.
The Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections is chaired by Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, a lawyer and human rights activist. It says an expert independent committee should be created to make public recommendations to the government on requests for restitution.
But it stresses that any policy should first be agreed with former colonised nations – particularly Indonesia, Suriname and Caribbean islands – to avoid a “neocolonial” approach.
“Only a shared policy for dealing with colonial cultural objects can lead to satisfactory outcomes for all parties,” the report said.
The committee recommends that the Netherlands should make clear a willingness to return stolen or looted objects unconditionally to these countries, if it can be demonstrated “with a reasonable degree of certainty” that the loss of possession was involuntary.
It says the government should also let former colonies know it is willing to consider returning significant objects whose provenance is unknown or that are not thought to be stolen or looted. This is recommended for objects “of particular cultural, historical or religious importance” and should be weighed up “against other relevant interests”.
The report adds that requests to return objects to countries colonised by other European powers should also be considered. It acknowledges that these cases are more complex, but says that if objects were lost involuntarily, “here too the guiding principle must be the redress of an injustice”.
It recommends that a new centre is established to research and verify the provenance of colonial cultural objects, and says museums should be reminded of their responsibility to investigate provenance and make the findings accessible.
The committee is also calling for more museum-level cooperation between Dutch institutions and those in source countries in areas such as developing good storage, training staff and providing internships.
It says that handling requests for return appropriately is “not an end point, but should be part of a collaborative relationship between the Netherlands and the source countries in which they draw on knowledge together to tell the story of the colonial period from different perspectives”.
Dutch museums’ colonial collections range from art to objects from religion and nature. Unlike in some other European countries, Dutch law does not prevent the state returning colonial objects to the countries they came from.
Ingrid van Engelshoven said: “This report emphasises that our colonial past leaves its mark in the present. The advice offers clear starting points for a new approach to colonial collections.
“I agree with the advisory committee that indigenous peoples of the colonial areas have been wronged in taking possession of these cultural objects against their will. We have to recognise that; only then can we move forward.
“From this starting point I will be working on a new policy together with the cabinet in the coming period, carefully and in equal cooperation with the countries of origin. We aim to provide a comprehensive policy response to the advice in early 2021.”
Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum welcomed the recommendations, saying: "This is an important topic for which there has been increasing attention in recent decades, domestically and internationally. It is therefore very good that there will be a national policy on this matter and that recommendations have been made.
"We endorse the recommendation to set up an independent commission and a centre of expertise for handling potential claims from other states. We expect that this will contribute to a constructive dialogue with countries of origin. In addition, it is also important that museums work together internationally to grow knowledge in this area.
"For the Rijksmuseum, this means that we will continue our research into the sources of our collections from the former Dutch colonies, and that we will intensify international cooperation. The independent committee will ultimately be concerned with restitution."
The director of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam also broadly supported the committee’s proposals in a media interview.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage
Over the last two years, a project based in Australia has been working towards the restitution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) has identified 199 overseas institutions with cultural heritage collections of this kind.
Of these, 74 said they were eager to establish a relationship with AIATSIS or indigenous communities in Australia, and 44 said they would be willing to consider a restitution request. However, more than a quarter had yet to respond to the project by the time of the report.
The project has already secured unconditional returns from Manchester Museum and Illinois State Museum. This included the return of 85 culturally significant objects such as boomerangs, shields, spears and body ornaments to five cultural groups.
AIATSIS found that repatriations can have “significant emotional and spiritual impact” on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and that returning cultural heritage material is “an important mechanism for reconciliation, healing and truth telling”.
Updated to include a statement from the Rijksmuseum