Government: Redressing an injustice by returning cultural heritage objects to their country of origin

The indigenous populations of colonial territories were served an injustice through the involuntary loss of objects that formed part of their cultural heritage, says the government in response to the advisory report entitled ‘Colonial collections and recognition of injustice’ by the Council for Culture and the Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections, chaired by Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You. Such recognition is the first stage of a sensitive approach towards colonial collections. Because of the imbalance of power during the colonial era, cultural objects were - effectively - often stolen. The government is keen to help rectify this historic injustice by returning cultural heritage objects to their country of origin and by strengthening international cooperation in this area.

The Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven:

“The colonial past is a subject that still personally affects many people every day. 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.”

Independent assessment committee

To ensure that colonial heritage objects are treated with care and sensitivity, it is essential that requests for their return are assessed independently, expertly and transparently. An independent assessment committee will therefore be appointed to advise on the matter. The committee will assess whether investigations into provenance provide sufficient evidence to establish if the objects in question were acquired through involuntary loss of possession.

Policy on returning objects

This policy concerns requests for the return of cultural heritage objects that are in the possession of the State; such requests must come from a nation state. Such objects in the possession of the State that are to be returned will be transferred to the relevant nation state.

Three categories of cultural heritage objects are eligible for return to their country of origin. If it can be established that an object was indeed stolen from a former Dutch colony, it will be returned unconditionally. Cultural heritage objects that were stolen from a former colony of another country, or which are of particular cultural, historic or religious significance to a country, may also be eligible for return. In such cases, the assessment committee will weigh the interests of the various parties. This will include such aspects as the cultural significance of the objects to the country of origin, the relevant communities in the countries of origin and in the Netherlands, the significance for the Dutch collection, the conditions in which the items are to be stored, and public accessibility to the objects.

Collaborating with countries of origin

Any action aimed at redressing these injustices can only be taken in partnership and dialogue with the former colonies. The government is exploring further opportunities for exchanging knowledge and joint research into colonial collections with Indonesia, Suriname and the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom. During these discussions, the Netherlands will be committed to ensuring accessibility to the objects, and that they are managed in a sustainable manner. Dutch museums and the public at large also stand to benefit from the sharing of history and knowledge about the collections and colonial history.