Perilous Gestures: A Lecture at the V&A About the Dutch Approach to Restitution (Anna Cottle, ITP Coordinator)

Written by Anna Cottle, ITP Coordinator

Henrietta Lidchi (Chief Curator, National Museum of World Cultures, The Netherlands) presented this week to a packed lecture theatre at the V&A on the Dutch approach to restitution and the National Museum of World Cultures’ new guidelines on restitution. Published in March 2019, Return of Cultural Objects: Principles and Process intends to address complex collection histories. Henrietta Lidchi previously worked at the British Museum and at National Museums Scotland and her research covers Native American art, contemporary artistic practices and material culture looking at collections histories and museum practices of collecting and display.

Perilous Gestures: Thinking through the return of cultural objects

The framework for the document started in September 2017, in the context of the current movement in Europe and within museums to look at what should/can be accomplished in relation to colonial collections. Lidchi explains how this ‘open, transparent’ initiative sets out how claims for return of objects would be dealt with, transparently. The move is significant as four museums (Tropenmuseum, Afrika Museum, Museum Volkenkunde and the Wereldmuseum), merged as the National Museum of World Cultures and now house the largest colonial era collection in Holland within one institution.

The 2017 increase in media scrutiny of repatriation/restitution/return was mentioned and the question of differing provenance methodologies in Europe was addressed. In terms of museum collections, Lidchi asked, “how many objects are in the collection came from countries, before they were independent?”

In terms of a given object in a collection, ask yourself:

  • What are you?
  • How do I know that?
  • How did you get here?
  • What does that mean?
The presentation used NMVW collections and a map of Dutch colonial territories to give an overview of the Museum’s collection and its relationship to Dutch and other colonial histories.

In terms of the publication and language, Lidchi describes how it aims to be clear, showing a slide of the Glossary and Definitions pages and asks, ‘Why use Return?’ in the title and concludes that “return” potentially covers both restitution and repatriation. The difference between the definition of trophy and relic was also considered.

An interesting case study on the Singhasari collaborative initiative between Museum Volkenkunde and Museum Nasional, Jakarta, considered the different criteria in which different parts of the collection were returned to Jakarta.

The Return of Cultural Objects: Criteria (NMVW 2019) draws upon existing laws and treaties, both Dutch and international. Three specific criteria were highlighted:

  • Legality: It can be shown that the cultural object(s) was collected/acquired in contravention of the standards of legality at the time – Draws from UNESCO 1954 & 1970 and UNIDROIT 1995.
  • Involuntary Separation: It can be shown that the claimants were involuntarily separated from the cultural object(s) – Draws from UNDRIP 2007 and Washington Principles.
  • Cultural Heritage value: cultural object(s) is/are of such value (cultural, heritage or religious) to nations and/or communities of origin that continued retention should be re-evaluated. – Draws from the Erfgoedwet 2016.
We Are Members Of The Benin War Council, Victor Ehikmanenor, 2017 (left) & Accommodating our strength, our land, our hearts, Yatika Starr Fields, 2019

It is an interesting time right now, Lidchi stated, because of all of the debates on restitution but also due to digitisation which is an extraordinary advantage and really very recent, enabling an advanced sharing platform for collections and communities. Her concluding thoughts on the museums of today were that we must build in histories we haven’t built in before, challenge orthodoxy, and focus on inclusion, remembering that objects cannot be the end point.

What is your museum, institution or country doing on these issues? What do you think?

This fascinating talk was part of the Gilbert Provenance and Spoliation Research Seminar at the V&A which aims to provide a regular forum for provenance and spoliation issues.

Felwine Sarr, Bénédicte Savoy Restitution Report

Tropen Museum

Afrika Museum

Museum Volkenkunde

Wereld Museum