The National Museum of World Cultures (Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden; Afrika Museum, Nijmegen) has published Return of Cultural Objects: Principles and Process, which identifies the principles on the basis of which the museum will assess claims for the return of objects of which it is the custodian.
On the basis of these principles and guidelines, the NMVW will provide advice to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science. As the collections are national collections and owned by the state, the Minister retains the final authority to grant the request for return and to develop a national policy in The Netherlands regarding claims for colonial heritage.
‘We know that many parts of our collection were acquired during the colonial period, a time of injustice and inequality’, explains Stijn Schoonderwoerd, director of NMVW. ‘Objects changed hands in a variety of ways in the course of four centuries of worldwide colonialism, and it is certain that we have objects in our care that were not relinquished voluntarily by the original owner. Where this is the case, claims for return are justifiable in the view of NMVW. If we state today, following agreed international conventions, that objects taken in situations of contemporary armed conflicts do not belong in our collection, why would that same principle not apply in the case of objects that were seized without consent a hundred years ago?’
Dialogue with countries or communities of origin
NMVW will identify areas of the collection where pro-active research should be undertaken in light of these principles. Provenance research will also be the basis for NMVW’s advice to the Dutch State regarding specific claims. ‘As in the case of claims for the return of objects seized during the Second World War, careful forensic and historical research must be undertaken in each individual case to ascertain how the object came into the museum’s collections. In this process it will be hugely important to pursue the matter in dialogue with countries or communities of origin’, states Schoonderwoerd.
The NMVW principles are open to reclaiming objects that are of unique national, cultural or social importance to the country of origin. ‘The Dutch Cultural Heritage Act (Erfgoedwet, 2016) recognises that certain objects are inextricably linked to our country and must always be retained for the Netherlands. In the same way, it is possible that we have objects in our care for which another country may say that they possess great significance for their national consciousness or for the cultural life of their nation. In our view, that too must be open for discussion.’
The NMVW principles do not represent official Dutch state policy applicable to all museums and collections in the Netherlands. They set out NMVW’s intentions, and describe which criteria and processes the museum will apply in advising the Minister for Education, Culture and Science when claims are made. It remains the responsibility of the Dutch State, as the owner of the collections, to make the final decisions and to develop a national policy in The Netherlands regarding claims for colonial heritage. In the interim this initiative will provide concrete examples and experiences to productively contribute to these developments.
The NWVW principles exist in a context where other European nations are reconsidering the way they address colonial collections. ‘We are naturally in contact with our counterparts at home and abroad. By formulating clear principles for the dialogue with countries of origin and by starting to respond to specific claims, we can gain practical experience with the objective that this can contribute to the political process towards a national policy.’
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