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Should Dutch Museums Return Looted Colonial Art?

Categories: Culture,Latest News

The directors of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Tropenmuseum say they’ll hand over 100,000 pieces of looted art taken during the colonial era. Is the move a step toward justice? Or is the Netherlands giving away its history?

The Dutch were among Europe’s earliest empire builders. As seafaring technology advanced in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch West India Company and Dutch East India Company set up trading outposts as far afield as Indonesia and the Caribbean. In the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1580s to 1650s, the Netherlands was arguably the world’s richest and most powerful country, and the spice trade financed a boom in culture, art, and military expansion.

Should Dutch museums return looted colonial art

Iziko William Fehr Collection (Castle of Good Hope), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even as the economic dominance of the Netherlands declined, the country hung on to its foreign colonies well into the 20th Century, only relinquishing control of Indonesia in 1949 and Suriname in 1975.

Throughout this time, the traders and colonists brought a wealth of foreign treasures back to the Netherlands, many of which still sit in the country’s museums. But according to a report by government advisors released earlier this month, it’s time to give them back.

The report identified 100,000 items looted from the colonies, including weapons, jewels, flags, religious art, and even human remains. It recommended that these items be handed over without question if there is “reasonable certainty” that they were taken by force.

The Rijksmuseum and Tropenmuseum are on board. “The Netherlands is taking its responsibility by recognizing the injustice,” Tropenmuseum Director Stijn Schoonderwoerd told Het Parool, calling the move a “big step forward.” Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits told The Guardian that returning looted colonial art is “an important issue” that museums should “work together internationally” on.

A Global Movement

The issue isn’t just being raised in the Netherlands. French President Emmanuel Macron promised in 2017 to return France’s collection of African artifacts, a collection of German states vowed to do the same last year, and in the US, Native Americans have taken legal action to recover tribal art in the white man’s museums.

Actually returning these exhibits, however, can take some time. In France, only one piece has actually been given back since Macron’s announcement – a sword belonging to 19th-Century Senegalese warlord Omar Tall.

The Dutch report calls for an instant handover in the name of righting a “historical injustice,” but the 100,000 artifacts may remain in the Netherlands for quite some time. Culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven won’t actually pass any laws based on it until next year, and even then these artifacts would have to be examined and entered into a database, and their rightful owners determined, researcher Jos van Beurden told the New York Times.