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Interdisciplinary symposium on restitution policies seeks more diverse perspectives

Taking responsibility concerning colonial heritage and restitution is a pressing issue for countries and museums worldwide. On 23 and 24 May, a Leiden University interdisciplinary symposium will explore new perspectives as a basis for policies. Organising professors Carsten Stahn and Pieter ter Keurs explain why researchers, students and professionals should attend.

What do you consider to be the main shortcoming of existing approaches to colonial heritage or restitution policies?

Stahn: ‘Many domestic systems are now issuing guidelines or policies on return of colonial collections. One deficit is that these guidelines often only cover domestic discourses. The idea of the conference is to take a comparative look and inquire what we can learn from different country experiences about decolonial approaches to restitutions. Moreover, we should look not only at the experiences of Western countries but especially at those who are at the receiving end of restitutions and how they experience these processes. While we see a transformation in how we confront our past histories, still one of the critiques is that there’s a certain degree of cultural nationalism in how the histories of these objects are told, even when we return them.’

What is the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in this?

Stahn: ‘We’re waking up to the fact that scientific disciplines use strict notions and labels, whereas we need to think in a broader discourse on how we can broaden our fundamental concepts. The way we look at objects, the way we think about the process of restitution and return, how we can think about restitution of knowledge, how we think about object identity and also how we can transform the role of the museum. These are fundamental questions which no discipline can answer on their own. You need an interplay between fields like history, law, arts, anthropology and political science. Aside from looking at disciplines, there is an urgent need to foreground  voices and perspectives from non-Western backgrounds and to learn from them.’

Ter Keurs: ‘In addition, we should realise how limited our notion of ownership is. Our European views on individual property differ from notions about communal, clan ownership in Africa or New Guinea. And what about objects that have the qualities of persons, objects that are active participants in networks of people and objects? This sounds strange to European ears, but it is very real to many other societies in the world. All this has consequences for restitution policies. That is why we need anthropologists.’

What do you hope the main outcome of this conference will be?

Stahn: ‘First of all to move forward, we might need to engage more actively with the transnational dimensions of restitution and return policies. There is an important question of how we could, for instance, look at more regional involvement regarding restitution and return of objects, and whether it is feasible to develop principles and shared decolonial practices. What is the role of the United Nations or UNESCO in this process? How can we shift EU policies on this issue? What are the emerging practices of the African Union and how do they confront the question how we could meaningfully engage with their heritage in restitution policies?’

Image: Brass plaque from the Kingdom of Benin, 16th-17th century, exhibited in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany / Wikimedia Commons

Symposium ‘Changing Approaches Towards Restitution and Return of Colonial Heritage: Tracing Experiences and Identifying Shared Decolonial Practices’

When: Thursday 23 May 2024 - Friday 24 May 2024

Where: Wereldmuseum and Leiden University

More information and registration

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