Return Looted Art to Former Colonies, Dutch Committee Tells Government

Return Looted Art to Former Colonies, Dutch Committee Tells Government

attempts by Dutch museums to reckon with the country’s colonial past have not always gone down well with the public. Last year, the Hermitage Museum, in Amsterdam, said it would jettison the term “Golden Age” for the era in the 17th century when the Netherlands was a world leader in art, science and trade, because the phrase obscured a history of slavery and exploitation. That decision was met with widespread condemnation and derided by Prime Minister Mark Rutte as “nonsense.”

The Netherlands should return looted art to its former colonies: That’s the official recommendation of an advisory committee to the Dutch government.

After a year of research, including interviews with people in former Dutch colonies such as Indonesia, Suriname and several Caribbean islands, the committee released its report in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

The lawyer and human rights activist Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, who led the committee, said in an interview that the government should acknowledge the injustices of colonialism and be willing to return objects without conditions if it can be proven that they were acquired involuntarily, and if their countries of origin ask for them.

The report calls for the creation of a body of experts to investigate objects’ provenance when requests are made, and a publicly accessible national database of all the colonial collections in Dutch museums.

The decision on whether to return an object, however, would ultimately rest with the Dutch government.

A similar report commissioned by the French government shows that the path from ideas to action can be a long and winding one. After a high-profile 2017 speech in which President Emmanuel Macron promised to return much of Africa’s heritage, the report he commissioned from two academics said that items brought to French museums without the permission of their countries of origin should be returned, if they were requested.

Since 2018, when the report was released, only 27 restitutions have been announced, and only one object, a traditional sword from Senegal, has been returned.

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