The Netherlands’ National Museum for World Cultures (NMVW) announced that it will be returning artefacts taken through colonial looting to their countries of origin. The museum will not be waiting for claims to act, but instead is actively researching its collections to flag and return objects that qualify for repatriation.
“We know that part of our collection was acquired during the colonial period, a period of great power differences and injustice”, museum director Stijn Schoonderwoerd said to NRC. The number of objects expected to be returned and to whom, has not yet been announced. An example of notable artefacts expected to return to their country of origin are the bronze sculptures better known as the Benin Bronzes. They are a collection of several thousand bronze statues taken from present-day Nigeria by the British at the end of the 19th century. 139 of those statues currently reside in the Netherlands.
The museum was started in 2014 after a merger between the Leiden Museum of Ethnology, the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam and the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal. The country’s national ethnological collections are managed by the museum, a collection consisting of over 375,000 objects spanning many centuries. The largest portion of the collection originates from Indonesia.
As far as the restitution process is concerned, when an artefact is returned to its country of origin, no requirements for its management will be enforced. Schoonderwoerd anticipates that this museum behaviour will eventually be adopted by museums throughout Europe and the rest of the world. While final decisions regarding artefacts will come down to government officials, the museum’s advocacy for proper restitution certainly influences the decision a great deal.
Also in restitution news this week, The National Army Museum in London agreed to repatriate the hair of the dead Emperor Tewodros II to his tomb in Ethiopia. The hair was cut off the emperor’s head in 1868 after the Battle of Maqdala when a British force defeated his army and he fatally shot himself instead of being captured.
The museum insisted that it will not be setting a precedent for the rest of Europe however several countries are hoping that it does as they increase their pleas for the return of antiquities taken by colonial Britain. The most famous of the disputed artefacts held in British museums are the Elgin Marbles, but are by no means the only ones.