In a much-anticipated step toward addressing its colonial wrongdoings, the Netherlands is finally responding to multiple requests from Indonesia and Sri Lanka and returning 478 cultural objects looted during Dutch colonial rule.

“This is a historic moment,” State Secretary for Culture and Media Gunay Uslu said in a statement, adding that “it is the first time that we … are returning cultural objects which should have never been in the Netherlands.” The repatriation to Indonesia will take place during a ceremonial handover at the National Museum of Ethnology on July 10; the repatriation of objects to Sri Lanka is slated for later this year.

The decision takes place in the wake of a long-awaited apology from the Dutch King Willem-Alexander acknowledging his country’s role in the slave trade. In 2020, he apologized in Indonesia for the “excessive violence” perpetrated during the Dutch colonial period. While that apology was largely symbolic, the recent repatriation of objects upon the request of a formerly colonized nation could be seen as an active step toward restorative justice.  

Golden pihiya, or knife (pre-1765), iron, gold, crystal, wood, 11 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches

The pieces to be repatriated were taken during Dutch colonial rule over Indonesia (1816–1941) and Sri Lanka (1658–1796). They include a richly decorated cannon pillaged from the Kandy Palace in Sri Lanka in 1765 and four stone statues looted from temples in the former Javanese kingdom of Singhasari. The remaining part of the so-called “Lombok Treasure,” a collection of jewels, precious stones, and metals stolen from a royal palace on Indonesia’s Lombok island in 1895, will also be repatriated (the first grouping was returned in 1977).

Six of the objects will be deaccessioned from the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Dutch national museum; they mark the institution’s first repatriation of colonial objects

Both Indonesia and Sri Lanka have previously requested the return of the many looted cultural objects that remain in Dutch public collections. In July 2022, for example, Indonesia asked for a list of cultural patrimony they deemed of great importance, including the remains of the “Java Man,” the first-known specimen of the ancient human Homo erectus. Bonnie Triyana, member of the Indonesian repatriation committee, noted at the time that the repatriation request was a “sign of a much bigger event.” However, the Java Man is not included in this first return of objects to be repatriated in July, as a decision has yet to be made regarding the remains. Claims related to the return of colonial-looted cultural objects have generally been met with reluctance from the Dutch side, and negotiations have been dragged out — until now. 

State Secretary Uslu stated that the Dutch government was acting on recommendations of the special Advisory Committee on the Return of Cultural Objects from Colonial Context, set up in 2019. The committee, chaired by Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, released a report in 2020 advising the Dutch government that “the recognition of injustice and the willingness to rectify it as far as possible should be the key principles of the policy on colonial collections in Dutch museums.” The report also stated that “the Netherlands must therefore be willing to return unconditionally any cultural objects looted in former Dutch colonies if the source country so requests.”

The report further indicated that the redress of historical violence and injustice does not always need to involve the physical return of cultural objects. It warned that the Netherlands must take care not to adopt a neocolonial approach based only on its own views and standards, but that its focus should instead be on the needs of formerly colonized nations. This advice is arguably one of the most progressive approaches in Europe: Other countries, most notably the United Kingdom, have been accused of dragging their feet when it comes to the repatriation of looted cultural objects.

The Netherlands’s repatriation exemplifies that a European government can indeed change its national policy and deaccession objects that are part of its national collections.

Importantly, State Secretary Uslu stated that the return of the nearly 500 objects would mark the start of a period “of closer cooperation with Indonesia and Sri Lanka in areas like collection research, display, and exchanges between museums.” If the Netherlands takes more proactive steps to take accountability for its colonial wrongdoings and honor the requests of countries of origin, other former colonizers may follow suit. 

Emiline Smith is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland (UK). Her research concerns the trafficking, protection and repatriation of cultural and natural resources in Asia. Follow...

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