Image: Anonymous, Mask, 1700-1800, Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

By Sanne Letschert

On the 29th of May CLUE+ – the Amsterdam based research institute for Culture, History and Heritage – organised a panel discussion to launch the book ‘Treasures in Trusted Hands. Negotiating the Future of Colonial Cultural Objects’ by Jos van Beurden. The ‘hot shots’ of the European museum world gathered on a sunny afternoon in the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam to have a discussion about how museums should deal with objects coming from the former colonies, or in other words, should museums give these objects back to the local communities of the countries they come from?

With a panel consisting of Marieke van Bommel (Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp), Laura van Broekhoven (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford), Taco Dibbets (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Steven Engelsman (Worldmuseum, Wien), Stijn Schoonderwoerd  (Nederlandse Musea van Wereldculturen), Nanette Snoep (Ethnological Museums, Saxony) and Pauljac Verhoeven (Museum Bronbeek) it promised to be an interesting afternoon.


Not only the big names appealed to me, but also the contested nature of colonial heritage, especially the Indonesian/Dutch history, has always intrigued me. I remember my first trip to Indonesia, now about five years ago, very well. Especially my visit to Jakarta and old Batavia made a big impression. As a Dutch women walking through these streets I was very aware of the fact that I wasn’t only admiring Indonesian heritage, but that it was also part of Dutch history. A contested part. Old Batavia is poorly maintained and I remember wondering who would feel responsible to take care of it. Do Indonesians want to remember this history? Do the Dutch? And if yes, in what way? That’s when I became interested in answering one of the most complex questions in heritage studies: who owns the past?

The book

The subject, the members of the panel and also the book that was the reason for this whole event interested me. In a short presentation the author said ‘Treasures in Trusted Hands’ is a ‘pioneering study that charts the one-way traffic of cultural and historical objects during five centuries of European colonialism’. In the presentation he gives several examples of disappeared colonial objects and also states that he considers colonialism as an unsolved conflict.

As there is no ‘method’ on how to deal with colonial objects, van Beurden offers a way forward, based on the unsolved conflict principle, in the discussions about the restitution of colonial objects. In his book he makes an effort to translate and adapt the Washington Conference Principles from 1998 on Nazi-looted art works to function as a model for mediation in the disputes about reclaiming objects.

Whose heritage?

These translated Washington principles and the question of how museums should deal with colonial objects in their collections were central to the discussion. The latter has been a big question in academic heritage, cultural studies and art history discourses for some years now. For me the debate of this afternoon is very much related to the way Stuart Hall describes the need for museums to rethink the way in which they hold on to western-oriented and Eurocentric narratives and the way they represent other non-Western cultures in their exhibitions. In his article ‘Whose Heritage? Un-settling ‘The Heritage’, Re-imagining the Post-nation’ the central questions are ‘Who should control the power to represent?’, ‘Who has the authority to re-present the culture of others?’ and of course ‘Whose heritage?’.

Even though these questions don’t seem to be related to the objects itself, I think they should be the starting point of every dialogue about a colonial object of which it is asked to be given back. This for the reason that finding an answer to these questions inevitably raises the awareness that these objects are strongly related to the identity and memory of the source community. Therefore they could make an appeal to the morale of museums. Should we give the objects back?

A moral appeal

A conclusion from the debate in the Allard Pierson Museum was indeed that museums should draw one line and need some sort of code of conduct so that they shift to a ‘moral paradigm’. The reactions to the translation of the Washington Principles as this ‘code’ were mixed, as most of the museum directors thought the restitution of objects should really be reviewed case-by-case. They did agree on the fact that museums should be open for these negotiations and should be willing to participate in them.

I cannot deny this is a beautiful idea, but for me there remain two problems. First is that the problem now is that restitution of colonial objects only takes place when persistent local communities or national governments initiate this process. Museums don’t have a proactive attitude in these negotiations: they do not actively research the provenance of all their colonial objects and offer the community or state involved to give the object back. It is the question to what extent this should change. Do museum shave enough resources to change their attitudes? Is there support from the source community? Where does the object tell the story better and what is best for its conservation?

Second is the problem that European museums still dictate the dialogue and the source country or community is not in an equal position, causing the negotiations to be unbalanced. Fun fact: as you might have noticed, in the panel wasn’t a single person from a museum located in one of the former colonies. Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting to start this conversation with them involved? This way they already start with a backlog. It is important to think of how we can create an equal dialogue and get everyone involved around the table in order to have equal representation, as Stuart would say.

I would say this panel discussion did not find a solution for the problem, but is a step in the right direction. Indeed I could imagine this book of Jos van Beurden as a building block for the reformulation of museum policies for the restitution of colonial objects or at least for an open attitude in these negotiations. This open attitude is fundamental to find a satisfying outcome for both parties and to find an answer to the question where these valuable objects would be best in place.

Hall, Stuart (1999), ‘Whose Heritage? Un-settling ‘the Heritage’, Re-imagining the post-nation’, Third Text, 13:49, 3-13.