Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Introduction

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Introduction

The restitution and return of colonial objects is one of the most important sites of debate over engagement with the colonial past. It forms an integral part of claims of reparation for colonial injustice, which have been voiced in the UN for decades (e.g., Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow’s famous Plea for the Return of Irreplaceable Cultural Heritage to Those Who Created It). The taking of objects marked an identity taking. Restitution involves struggles over access to history, multiple identities of objects, epistemic frames, semantics or economic justice which are central to societies in countries or communities of origin and critical memory culture in former colonial powers. The debate has witnessed considerable transformation over the past years. After decades of stalemate and silence, there is an increased unease with the violent collecting histories of cultural objects and human remains, and their ethical and legal treatment in holding countries and public collections in Europe (e.g., Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, France, Portugal) and the US. Many Western museums are adopting new ethical policies and guidelines to deal with contested objects or facilitate repatriation of human remains. Some countries are contemplating legislative reform to enable return processes. Certain objects, like the Benin bronzes (see also post by João Figueiredo), have triggered a race for return, through which holding institutions seek to foreground their image responsible social actors. Despite growing consciousness of complex ethical and legal entanglements of objects, contemporary practices face a number of shortcomings. They are often centred on ‘spectacular objects’. They conceal the complicity of law and racial ‘science’ in cultural takings or the destruction of different polities or ways of knowing. As several of our following posts show, return processes involve national or post-colonial rebranding. They often fail engage with radically different positionalities or inflict new forms of epistemic violence through seemingly ‘neutral’ frames or labels (‘shared heritage’, cooperation, loan). For instance, the management of return claims reduces the engagement with the past to technical-bureaucratic processes (e.g., de-accessioning, transfer of ownership). These factors may impede new encounters with material culture or past histories and a renewal of social relations.

This symposium seeks to engage with some of these dilemmas, including some of the themes treated in Carsten Stahn’s Confronting Colonial Objects (OUP, 2023) and issues that have gained lesser attention in discourse, such as the political economy of cultural takings, the diverse ontologies of objects, the dual role of law as enabler and constraint of extractive practices, or the potential of a relational approach to facilitate new forms of engagement with objects. It offers a forum to take a critical look at the histories and frames of international law, re-visit the law and politics of cultural restitution, and/or map alternative lenses or decolonial approaches.  It covers a number of areas, such as the material turn in legal history, the diverse ontology of objects, bio-colonialism and cultural extractivism, the construction of social identities through discourses on restitution, the relevance of transitional justice concepts to return of cultural objects or human remains (e.g., access to justice, truth-finding memorialization), and perspectives of affected communities on restitution processes.

It brings together voices by established academics and emerging scholars, accommodates diverse perspectives and brings experiences from different regions (Africa, Latin America, Asia).

The symposium consists of a number of posts, addressing both the extractive histories and legal frames governing translocation of cultural artefacts and human remains, as well as tensions and continuities in the law and politics of cultural restitution. It covers different dimensions of the book, as well as well as novel insights and perspectives that go beyond the work. 

1. Carsten Stahn, Leiden University & Queen’s University Belfast: Confronting Colonial Objects – Introducing Debates

2. Alonso Gurmendi, King’s College London: International Law as Colonial Object – The Language/Materiality Dichotomy and the Coloniality of Cultural Takings

3. Sebastian M. Spitra, University of Vienna: A Panopticon of Colonial Cultural Heritage Taking and Return

4. Óscar Genaro Macías Betancourt, Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs: On Gods and Things – Different Ontologies and the United National Declaration of Indigenous Peoples

5. Sebastian Willert, Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow in Leipzig and NYU Berlin: On the Duality of the Ottoman Antiquity Law: Enabling and Constraining Extractive Practices

6. Sarah Imani, Legal Adviser, ECCHR Berlin: Beyond Return, Towards Repair – Litigating Restitution of Entangled Objects along the Spectrum of Legalities and (Post)colonial Justice

7. Alessandro Chechi, University of Geneva: Returning Colonial Objects – The Role of Transitional Justice and Alternative Dispute Resolution

8. Marie-Sophie de Clippele, UC Louvain, Université Saint-Louis, Brussels: Are Museums Entering a New Era of Repatriation of Human Remains?

9. Gracia Lwanzo Kasongo, Catholic University of Louvain: Charting a Cultural Relational Justice – Unraveling the Complexity of Human Remains Restitution in the Democratic Republic of Congo

10. João Figueiredo, Käte Hamburger Kollegm University of Münster: Confronting Portuguese Colonial Ideology and the Bizarre ‘Return’ of an Oba’s Head to Angola in 1954

11. Raghavi Viswanath & Jessica Wiseman, EUI, Beyond The performance of Restitution: An Unexpected Tale of Minority Disenfranchisement and Political Conflicts in Tamil Nadu

12. Emery Patrick Effiboley, University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin: Repatriation of the Regalia of the Danxomé Kingdom to the Republic of Benin – From the Demand of Restitution to the Celebration of the Return and Beyond 

13. Sasha Merigot, Sciences Po: Rethinking Museums and Restitution – Communication, National Identity, and Curatorship Practices at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac

14. Chief Charles Taku, Stolen African Cultural Heritage: Call for the Return of Ancestral Bangwa Artefacts

We are grateful for all contributors for offering their insights and reflections and hope that it will inspire ongoing discussion on the interplay between international law and cultural takings and the pressing challenges of cultural restitution.   

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Books, Critical Approaches, General, Public International Law, Symposia
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