You may recall the early scene in Black Panther, in which Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger organizes a heist (or, depending on your point of view, repatriation) of art from a Western museum. This is in no way a new debate, but a change in attitude at some of the world’s great exhibition spaces may indeed be coming.
An advisory committee has just delivered a report to the Dutch government one year in the making, according to The New York Times. It recommends the return of artwork to the Netherlands’s former colonies in Indonesia, Surniame and the Caribbean. Should the Dutch government follow the guidelines, it would mean an investigative body will look at an object’s provenance when requests are made, and create a publicly accessible national database of all the colonial collections in Dutch museums.
This follows the spirit of something begun in France in 2018, but has seen, in actuality, very little movement. The Times reports that only 27 restitutions have been announced, and only one object, a traditional sword from Senegal, has been returned to a former French colony. The sluggish action in France has led to a Congolese activist named Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza making something of a Black Panther-esque move at a Paris museum in June. (He’d carried out similar actions at museums in Marseille and Amsterdam.) Diyabanza is currently on trial.
But The Netherlands, which, through the centuries, has enjoyed a reputation of being among the more tolerant of European economic powers, may work more quickly than France. There are, of course, complications like what to do about artwork taken from the colonies of neighboring countries (those decisions will be made on “the basis of reasonableness and fairness,” committee chair Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You said) and how to engage in dialogue with what would be the recipient nations.
“It would almost be neocolonial to presume to know what’s good for Indonesia or Suriname,” Stijn Schoonderwoerd, director of the Netherlands’s National Museum of World Cultures
Last year, Amsterdam’s Hermitage Museum cancelled its use of the term “Golden Age” to refer to Dutch 17th century advancements in art and science, citing that it obscured its economic entanglement with the transatlantic slave trade.
“Every generation and every person must be able to form his or her own story about history,” the museum’s 17th century curator Tom Van der Molen said. “The dialogue about that needs space, the name ‘Golden Age’ limits that space.”
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