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Committee to Dutch Government: Return What was Stolen

by Sara Blad | 24 October 2020

Illustration by Elsa Money

The 36-carat Banjarmasin Diamond, formerly owned by the Sultan of Banjarmasin and now on display at the Rijksmuseum, ‘is war booty’. The Rijksmuseum’s object label describes how in 1859, Dutch troops ‘violently seized’ control of the diamond from the Indonesian sultanate in the midst of a battle of succession. Yet, nothing in the object label indicates if and how the Rijksmuseum intends to return the looted object to Indonesia. New government legislation may provide an answer.

A newly published report by the Dutch Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections unconditionally urges that the government return objects looted from the nation’s former colonies if the source country so requests. The report may pave the way for Dutch collections to return looted objects to their rightful owners. The Advisory Committee came to this conclusion after working alongside ‘the countries where the Netherlands exercised longstanding colonial authority’, specifically Indonesia, Suriname, and the Caribbean islands, over the past year. This collaborative process informs much of the report, which advocates de-centering Dutch interests relative to those of the country’s former colonies. The report emphatically states that the Netherlands must respect and accommodate the source country’s wishes to ensure that the Netherlands does not reinforce colonial power dynamics in these discussions.

Chaired by Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, a Surinamese lawyer and human rights activist currently living in the Netherlands, the Advisory Committee presented its recommendations to Ingrid van Engelshoven, the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture, and Science on October 7, 2020. According to The New York Times, Engelshoven has since accepted the report’s arguments and will present draft legislation on the subject to Parliament in early 2021 Currently, the Dutch government is responsible for deciding whether a museum in the Netherlands can return an object to someone claiming rightful ownership because the objects are the state’s legal property.

Some Dutch museum directors have previously tried to persuade the Dutch government to agree to the return of looted objects. In March 2019, the National Museum for World Cultures announced that it would begin to conduct provenance research on its own collection to actively search for objects it should return. In the same year, Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits told Trouw (translated into English by DutchNews),‘it’s a disgrace that the Netherlands is only now turning its attention to the return of the colonial heritage … We should have done it earlier and there is no excuse’. The Rijksmuseum had just opened talks with Sri Lanka and Indonesia to return some objects—including the Banjarmasin Diamond—and discuss other objects’ provenance.

Jos van Beurden, an independent researcher specialising in restitution, told The New York Times that though ‘the principle is fantastic’, he is ‘worried about the execution’, which has been inconsistent. Despite the lack of all-encompassing legislation, the Dutch government has returned some objects recently. In January 2020, the Netherlands returned 1,500 historical objects to Indonesia. In a press conference given at the time, Hilmar Farid, Indonesia’s Education and Culture Ministry Director-General, said ‘this is the first time in Indonesian history that Indonesian cultural objects or artefacts that were taken [to the Netherlands] are returned’. In March 2020, the Netherlands returned a gold-inlaid dagger to Indonesia—forty-five years after the country’s original promise to return the dagger. Prior to the dagger’s scheduled return in 1975, the Netherlands’ Museum of Ethnology lost track of the object’s whereabouts. Van Beurden attributes the dagger’s disappearance to a combination of disorganisation and an unwillingness to relinquish the object, indicating how institutional complicity reinforced these colonial dynamics.

The report also dictates that, as a first step, the Netherlands must acknowledge the injustices of racism, oppression, violence, and exploitation it perpetuated against these populations. Unfortunately, the report is not a shining example of that ethic. Much of the report’s discussion of those injustices relies on the passive voice, thus relieving the looters of public admonishment. For example, the report states that ‘many cultural, historical, and religious objects … were brought to the Netherlands from these territories’; ‘cultural heritage objects … came into Dutch hands against the will of their owners’; and ‘much remains unknown about the way in which colonial cultural objects came into Dutch possession’. The Rijksmuseum also falls prey to this problem. Its object label for the Banjarmasin Diamond refers to how the diamond ‘was sent’ to the Netherlands.

Perhaps this use of the passive voice is a consequence of the Dutch museums’ failure to thoroughly investigate the provenance of the colonial objects at issue. That task is difficult, of course, because the sense of colonial entitlement was so pervasive and accepted at the time that records of the looting may be sparse. This may feel like a trivial aside about semantics, but the salient point is that the Dutch actively dominated these populations and wrested some of their cultural heritage from them. The inability of the Advisory Committee to attribute action in written text seems incongruous with its stated desire to come to terms with the Netherlands’ colonial legacy.

To remedy this problem, the Advisory Committee suggests that the Dutch government establish an ‘Expertise Centre for the Provenance of Colonial Cultural Objects’. This body would conduct provenance research into thousands of colonial cultural objects to learn more about how Dutch collections acquired these items.

Prior to this report, the Dutch government acknowledged that the Banjarmasin Diamond is a candidate for restitution. In 2010, a descendant reestablished the Sultanate of Banjarmasin and the Sultanate requested that the Netherlands return the diamond. If and when they do receive the diamond, it will be in a different form. When Dutch troops abolished the Sultanate in 1859, they brought the diamond to the Netherlands where somebody cut it into a rectangle, an emblematic display of the arrogance and violence of the coloniser. Through real action—opening dialogue, sharing knowledge, and returning objects—the Netherlands can begin to readdress the wrongs it unleashed on its former colonies.


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