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Can the Netherlands make good on its restitution promises?

15 February 2021

The Netherlands has long been recognised as a leader in the effort to return art looted by the Nazis to its rightful owners. Now it is officially joining the move to create greater sensitivity to the rights of people whose material legacies have been stripped from them as part of the history of colonial conquests. The Dutch government has confirmed that it will adopt guidelines issued by a commission in ‘recognition that an injustice was done to the local populations of former colonial territories when cultural objects were taken against their will’.

Across the world, that move has been gaining ground for some decades. Even before American Indian activists successfully blocked the 1984 exhibition of a Zuni war god at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, efforts were underway in both the United States and Canada to build better respect for the perspectives of the non-Western peoples whose cultural artefacts had entered museum storerooms. The trend soon spread across the Atlantic, taking on various forms that reflected the historical, ideological, and political particularities of the countries that adopted it. In the more recent past, the Heidelberg Statement of 2019, signed by more than two dozen German museum curators, expressed the need for attention to the rights of originator communities and laid out guidelines for everything from sensitivities about the display of objects to the question of repatriation; in 2017 President Macron commissioned a study of African materials in France’s national museums, as explicit preparation for their selective repatriation. But progress has not been without bumps, and there has been little agreement between the museum sector and the art market. In 2019, EVE auction house in Paris was still offering for sale more than 50 items from some 20 Tribal Nations in the United States and Canada, some considered to be living gods by their original American Indian owners.

The new guidelines for the Netherlands were issued last October by an eight-member commission, half of whom had Suriname, Antillean, or Indonesian backgrounds, and which was headed by Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, a Suriname-born public intellectual. Both the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the three museums that were combined in 2014 to form the Netherlands World Museum (Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, Leiden’s Ethnography Museum, and the smaller Afrikamuseum in Berg-en-Daal) are likely to see effects upon their collections; both institutions expressed their support for the new guidelines when they were published in October. A recent news bulletin published by the Boekman Foundation on the commission’s conclusions highlighted several key objects that might now be subject to return, including a 70-carat diamond that belonged to the Sultan of Banjarmasin, a silver calabash from Curaçao, and the 18th-century banjo collected by John Gabriel Stedman that was made by an enslaved African in Suriname. ‘A diamond, a calabash, and a banjo sounds like a fairy tale,’ remarked Lilian Gonçalves, ‘and yet the hundreds of thousands of objects taken from Dutch colonies turn out to be more of a story of exploitation, oppression, and theft.’

The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Photo: Clock/Wikimedia Commons (published under a Creative Commons licence, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Dutch version of restitution is distinguished by the varying size and status of the country’s former colonial possessions, and their geographical spread across the world. Indonesia, by far the largest, will not be interested, according to Professor Gert Oostindie, director of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, ‘in any type of Dutch gesture or Indonesian request that has even a hint of neocolonial relations’; that nation would not wish, he argues, to be seen in any way as mendicants toward their former coloniser, though they might be amenable to a strong Dutch initiative. Oostindie adds that the Dutch collected mainly non-Islamic objects while the overwhelming majority of the Indonesian population is and has always been Muslim.

On the other side of the world, Suriname is a small, ethnically diverse nation of Creoles, Maroons, Amerindians, and the descendants of indentured labourers from India and Java, though only Maroon and Amerindian objects were considered sufficiently exotic to be collected in any number, and the relations of these hinterland populations with the central government remain fraught. Finally, the islands of the Dutch Caribbean made almost no contributions to Netherlands’ collections during the colonial period and so are relatively uninvolved in the new mandate.

The scene has been set by the various documents of intent recently issued in Europe. But numerous complications – from international political relations and national laws to the available facilities for the preservation of repatriated objects in the source countries – suggest that the immediate prospect is likely to be more of a trickle of objects than any massive transfer.