Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Introducing Debates

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Introducing Debates

[Carsten Stahn is Professor of International Criminal Law and Global Justice at Leiden University and Queen’s University Belfast]

The debate on restitution and return of stolen or looted cultural objects is as old as humanity. In contrast to return of Nazi-looted art, governed inter alia by the Washington Principles, cultural takings in the colonial era have received limited structural attention. The debate has been dominated by a lot of false binaries and red herrings (Savoy). Arguments of cultural nationalism, market logics, or the branding of objects as universal heritage have been used to silence discussions on conditions of acquisition, access to culture or epistemic frames. For a long time, return was mainly treated as an issue of cultural diplomacy. Change was partially driven by developments of indigenous rights and the gradual humanization of cultural heritage law.

Over the past decade, the restitution movement has reached a new momentum. Sustainable Development Goal 16 lists ‘recovery and return of stolen assets’ as an express target. There is growing  consciousness of the ongoing remnants of colonial injustice, changing museum ethics and professional practices, as well as new ways to confront issues of ownership or access to culture. Change is inter alia driven by civil society pressure, return claims, professional networks, the work of curators or individual institutions, greater transparency, the establishment of new art institutions in the Global South – often more modern than their Western counterparts, or new forms of collaboration between museums and communities in provenance research, governance or display of objects. But at closer look, there are also darker sides and more uncomfortable truths.

In many contexts, restitution and return continues to be considered as an ethical issue, or it is branded as a gesture of good will. Techniques, such as loans (see e.g., Kwame Opoku’s critique of the loan of ‘looted Asante artefacts to Ghana) or shared heritage are used to evade more burdensome reform of legislative frameworks impeding return. The semantics and reference frames regarding material culture often remain dictated by colonial narratives or Western epistemologies. The recent controversy over the return of the Benin bronzes to the Oba of Benin shows that an open encounter with the past requires radical listening, i.e. respect of other, different worldviews and openness towards new object possibilities. Digitization offers new prospects to create greater transparency in relation to collections, but also creates potential new hierarchies or distances. There is a deeper need to reflect on fundamental legal concepts (e.g., ownership,  return or ‘repatriation’) and contemporary trends and/or re-orient restitution policies. The role of the art trade and private collections are rarely addressed.

What’s the stance of Confronting Colonial Objects on the debate, and what are some of your main arguments?

The book argues in the broadest sense that restitution is neither a purely moral, nor a purely legal question, but rather situated at the intersection of three different angles: justice, ethics, and human rights. It thereby tries to recognize the complexity cultural takings in the colonial era and to overcome some of the traditional dichotomies (e.g., to return or not to return).

The study illustrates how colonial agents reinvented social and scientific narratives to justify takings throughout different periods of colonial history and shows synergies with contemporary arguments. It makes a case that that coloniality was mediated through material things. A key part of the analysis is devoted to micro-histories, biographies or ‘necrographies’ of objects (Dan Hicks) of objects. The Western-centric understanding of arts and sciences in the Enlightenment and imagined cultural hierarchies marginalized other civilizations and ways of engaging with the world. Human remains became the incarnation of the body politics of colonialism.  The story and transformation of objects offers not insights about colonial ideologies, inter-imperial rivalry or the nature of extractive practices or the branding of art forms, but also about the ways in which racial science and market forces influenced the shaping of international law (see also Jessie Hohmann and Daniel Joyce’s International Law’s Objects) and its own coloniality. Cultural ‘objects’ were not only sites of colonial violence, domination or commodification  but also symbols of resistance or agents in their own right, which transformed attitudes in Western societies.

The book seeks to diversify perspectives on the ontologies of objects. Souleymane Bachir Diagne has argued that objects do not only present art but constitute a language for African philosophy and cosmology. In her work on ‘The gender of the gift’ (1988)  Marilyn Strathern has shown that in certain cultures personhood is ‘partible’, i.e. composed out of relations to others, and cumulatively composed and decomposed of the elements of other persons. This relational understanding of personhood embraces a more fluid distinction between subjects and objects, or persons and things. Drawing on scholars, such as Bernadette Atuahene or Ciraj Rassool,  I argue in favor of a multi-normative perspective regarding past takings and introduce alternative theorizations (e.g., personhood-related conceptions of ownership, dignity-based understandings of cultural takings) and more radical reinterpretations of personhood, borrowing from transitional justice  (e.g., human remains as ‘missing persons’, objects as ancestors) to broaden epistemic frames.

In legal terms, I try to explain the dual role of law, as imperial tool and language, and as instrument of resistance and transformation. The book challenges the argument that all takings of cultural objects qualify as looted art or theft. But it also questions the premise that colonial acquisitions were lawful, simply because they involved some type of consent, exchange or compensation. It relies on the concept of entanglement (Nicholas Thomas) to recognize these complexities. It argues that legality should be regarded as a spectrum, with different degrees of legality or illegality (‘entangled legalities’), and develops principles of relational justice to disentangle these dichotomies. The book thereby acknowledges colonial continuities, while suggesting that law can serve as a de-colonial space. The more past takings are grounded in legal wrong, the more compelling it becomes to link resolution of claims and return practices to transitional justice concepts, such as right of access to truth (i.e. transparency, access to the history of objects) or access to a remedy.

Ultimately, I propose a relational cultural justice approach to overcome impasses, which have created stalemate and impeded dialectical engagement. This approach does not portray restitution or return as golden standard for all objects. It rather places the emphasis on the need to search forms of consent in relation to ownership, presentation or conservation, based on the nature of objects, structural injustice and contemporary relations. It is imperative to establish structures for consultation and dialogue, which go beyond the state-centric frame of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The core idea of the relational model is to foster new collaborative relationships between holding institutions, countries or communities of origin  and local stakeholders. It argues at the same time that contemporary engagement should not be reduced to issues of return, but encompass strategies and remedies beyond restitution.

What main challenges did you encounter?/ Where to go from here?

I can only mention a few brief elements here. One of the main challenges of contemporary debates is the continuing centrality on Western voices and epistemic frames. There is a pressing need to diversify scholarship, foreground local knowledge systems and/or strengthen the voices of those who have advocated for change, but have received less attention in discourse As platforms such as Open Restitution Africa has shown, claims for return were made much earlier than acknowledged in contemporary policies, and scholarship is more diverse than portrayed in traditional accounts of cultural heritage law (see e.g. Ekpo Eyo, Folarin Shyllon, Kwame Opoku, Zahi Hawass, Monica Hanna).     

Confronting Colonial Objects has inherent methodological limitations, since it relies strongly on traditional sources or colonial archives. They are useful to unpack colonial stereotypes and biases, but ultimately a fuller story may emerge through incorporation of oral histories and additional accounts. An innovative approach is to tell object stories more directly through the voice of those exposed to takings (see Sela K. Adjei & Yann LeGall, Fifteen Colonial Thefts). At some point, I asked myself whether it is at all appropriate for a Western scholar like me to write on the issue, and whether publishing a volume like this would take away space from others. Ultimately, I think there is merit in such forms of critique, in order to reveal contradictions, take distance from discriminatory semantics, point out colonial continuities or stimulate critical inquiry and memory in Western societies who struggle to re-engage with own past. However, as Olúfémi Táíwò has cautioned, contemporary ‘de-colonization’ agendas bear the risk of defining the colonized through the colonial experience or reducing moral or political agency.

A second dilemma is the narrow focus on restitution and return itself. It is a convenient method to address colonial injustices. But such a focus alone may conceal greater structural challenges. Cultural justice requires more comprehensive socio-economic measures to address the epistemic and economic consequences of cultural colonial takings, including re-consideration of artistic or legal frames, education, re-animation of traditions, knowledge and know-how, building of infrastructure and connections to contemporary works of art, or a re-thinking of modes of  commercial exploitation, intellectual property frames or access to objects.

There is need to rethink the idea of the museum as such. The debates surrounding cultural colonial objects provide important incentives for Western collections re-rethink their structures and transform from ‘temples’ of knowledge, science, or education into more open spaces of civic encounter and mutual engagement. In certain cases, storage and display have transformed objects into ‘things’ that they were never meant to be. Community-run museums, heritage centres or ‘living museums’ with participatory models may offer a more direct and immediate access to objects. In some cases, the museum may not be the most appropriate space for ‘objects’.

Finally, legal frames should be developed beyond national approaches. In the book, I argue that it would be valuable to develop a set of principles of cultural relational justice. I have grouped them under four overarching themes: Access to history and culture (Principle 1: Transparency of collections and object histories, Principle 2: Object accessibility),  Accountability (Principle 3: Seeking new forms of consent, Principle 4: Pluralistic access to justice, Principle 5: Recognition of injustice, Principle 6: Social repair, Principle 7: Plurality of pathways to achieve just and fair solutions, Principle 8: Collaboration, Principle 9: Meaningful redress for wrongful action), Memorialization (Principle 10: Multi-dimensional memorialization), and Non-Recurrence (Principle 11: Reviewing object ontologies and cultural national foundations of inalienability and deaccession laws, Principle 12: Object protection in source countries or communities of origin, Principle 13: Due diligence duties of auction houses and private collectors, Principle 14: Decolonial education).

 What new perspectives does the symposium provide?

I am grateful for contributors to set the broader themes discussed in the book into perspective.  The first set of posts focus on extractive histories and legal frames in a broader context.

Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg discusses the role of law and legal materiality. He makes a key point that international law is not only complicit in cultural takings , but ‘constitutive’ of  coloniality’, and itself  a ‘colonial object’.

Sebastian Spitra raises the important question whether ‘the colonial and non-colonial sphere’  are really so ‘clearly separated as the approach of the book suggests’. He draws attention to inner European takings, which are partly discussed in Chapter 1, and the need to pay greater attention to ‘unwritten legal traditions of communities of origin’.

Oscar Macias discusses the diverse ontologies of objects and alternative definitions of heritage. He argues that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ‘allows stakeholders to think heritage outside the box’.

Sebastian Willert shows how archaeology served as a tool for imperial expansion, and in particular how colonial antiquities laws and partage practices enabled and constrained extractive practices.

Sarah Imani develops how decolonial legal praxis “from below” may provide important perspectives to rethink litigation and reparation policies, including the “Reconciliation Agreement” between Namibia and Germany’, which has been challenged in Namibia.   

Alessandro Chechi engages with the cultural justice argument. He explains how methods of alternative dispute resolution and transitional justice may complement gaps and silences in treaty law and practice.

Marie-Sophie de Clippele develops a model of inclusive heritage justice for the return  of human remains and discusses the neglected issue of human fossils.  

The second series of posts addresses tensions and continuities in the law and politics of cultural restitution.

Gracia Lwanzo Kasongo discusses the practice of ‘immaterial restitution’, based on Belgium experiences. She explores how a relational approach may address dilemmas in contexts where local communities, such as the Wamba community in the DRC, reject the repatriation of human remains..

João Figueiredo shows how outdated racial theories, colonial stereotypes or cultural nationalism may influence return processes He illustrates this through the curious story of the return of a Benin Oba head to Angola.

Raghavi Viswanath & Jessica Wiseman show, based on the example of the Tamil Nadu, that repatriation of cultural objects to their ‘place of origin’ may conflict with contemporary and lived stewardship practices relating to these objects.

Emery Patrick Effiboley demonstrates how the celebrated French return of the Dahomey treasures to the Republic Benin continued to foreground the centrality of French perspectives, while leaving ambiguities in relation to return of other objects.

Sasha Merigot illustrates this argument from a different perspective. She shows how the discursive practices of the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac frame national identity and how ‘France’s colonial status is renegotiated in the context of restitution’.

The symposium concludes with a post by Chief Taku, who clarifies the story of the taking of the Bangwa Queen and calls for a return of ancestral Bangwa artefacts.

I am deeply indebted to all contributors for their thoughtful posts and their constructive critiques which help to advance debates, which will stay with us for many decades to come.    

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