• The Netherlands is to hand back stolen colonial-era cultural artefacts.
  • Dutch state collections should have no place for items acquired by theft, says a government minister.
  • New guidelines will help curators assess which items should be handed back at once.
  • Complex cases will be decided by an expert committee.
  • All the items in the National Museum of World Cultures will be reviewed.

Dutch state museums and art galleries are set to return thousands of items taken from former colonies in a move that experts say will make the country a leader in repatriating colonial-era objects.

New guidelines issued by the government of the Netherlands will be used to determine requests from former colonies and other nations for the return of artefacts. Priority will be given to objects that were stolen by colonial authorities.

The guidelines follow the recommendations of an expert committee, which last year said the Dutch government must recognize the injustice done to the peoples of former colonies and be willing to unconditionally return any cultural objects looted from them.

Past ‘injustices’

Dutch academic Jos van Beurden, an expert on colonial museum collections, told the Art Newspaper that the guidelines represented a ground-breaking, progressive break with the past. “At this moment, the Netherlands has a modest lead, but that can change,” he said.

In a statement announcing the move, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science said that, because of the imbalance of power during the colonial era, many cultural objects were “effectively stolen” from former colonies.

“The colonial past is a subject that still personally affects many people every day,” said culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven. “This is why we must treat colonial collections with great sensitivity.

“I believe it important that colonial collections should be accessible and that they tell their stories from a variety of perspectives. This could mean a painful confrontation with the injustices in our past, the effects of which are in some cases still felt every day.

“There is no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft. If a country wants them back, we will give them back.”

Unconditional return

The guidelines apply to objects in the custody of state museums and galleries whose return is formally requested by another country. If it can be established that an object was stolen from a former Dutch colony, it will be returned unconditionally.

Where objects were either stolen from another nation’s former colony or have particular cultural, historic or religious significance, a special committee will “weigh the interests of the various parties” including “the relevant communities in the countries of origin and in the Netherlands”.

The Netherlands National Museum of World Cultures has already embarked on a $5.5 million project to review its entire collection to identify looted items and recommend what should happen to them.

“We bring our international knowledge and networks together in search of answers to important social issues surrounding the collections,” said Professor Susan Legêne of Amsterdam’s Free University, which is collaborating with the museum on the project.

“This goes beyond questions such as where do objects come from and to whom they belong? Importantly: for whom do they carry meaning today and how or where are these meanings most relevant are important questions,” she added.

Global pressure

Pressure has been mounting on European museums and galleries to return objects to their countries of origin for decades.

In 2005, Italy returned the 1,700-year-old Obelisk of Axum to Ethiopia from where it had been removed in 1937 by Benito Mussolini’s troops.

Greece first asked the UK to return sculptures from the Athens Parthenon – also known as the Elgin Marbles – in 1983. Although Greece later built a museum near the Acropolis to house them, the sculptures remain in the British Museum in London.

In 2018, Norway agreed to hand back items taken from Chile’s Easter Island by explorer Thor Heyerdahl. In the same year, Germany issued a code of conduct on the treatment of colonial-era artefacts.

In January 2020, the Netherlands returned 1,500 artifacts to Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, following the closure of Museum Nusantara in Delft. And in December of that year, the French senate voted unanimously to approve a law returning 27 colonial-era artifacts to Benin and Senegal.