TAPAS/Thinking About the PASt is proud to announce its conference on the restitution of colonial collections in Europe, taking place on December 2 and 3, 2019 in Ghent.
Following the recent repatriation of human remains from Germany to the Namibian and Australian governments and French president Emmanuel Macron’s statement that the return of African objects in French museums is a ‘priority’, claims for the restitution of colonial acquisitions have gained momentum in Europe. Various social and cultural groups as well as states demand the return of human remains, archives and cultural objects in colonial collections to which they claim cultural, religious, historical or biological affinity. Yet many museums, collectors and governments continue to wrestle with restitution demands, often lacking a clear vision on the best way forward or resorting to defensive discourses. These include a legalist reasoning in which states and ethnographic museums today cannot be held accountable for crimes committed so long ago, referring to the high scientific or market value of the acquired objects or following a statist reasoning in which only claims by ‘nation states’ are valued as legitimate. This conference wants to particularly explore such motivations and the implicit philosophical convictions that underpin many restitution-claims and responses to them. More information on the venue and the full programme follows soon!
Following the repatriation of human remains from Germany to Namibia and Australia in 2011, 2013 and 2014, and French president Emmanuel Macron’s statement on November 28, 2017 that return of African objects in French museums is a “priority”, issues of provenance and restitution of colonial acquisitions have gained momentum in Europe. Various individuals, civil society groups as well as state-actors demand control over, or the return of, human remains, archives and cultural objects in European colonial collections to which they claim cultural, religious, historical or biological affinity. In response, European governments and museum networks have established working groups and consulted experts for guidelines on how to deal with these demands. This has resulted in documents such as the Recommendations for the Care of Human Remains in Museums and Collections by the German Museums Associations, a report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy on Macron’s demand in 2018 and Return of Cultural Objects: Principles and Process by the Dutch Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. All of these reports attempt to formulate strategies on how to rethink and deal with the continuing presence of colonial collections in Europe.
Yet, many museums, collectors and governments continue to wrestle with restitution demands. They generally lack a clear vision on the best way forward and often resort to ‘defensive’ discourses. These include: (1) legalist reasonings according to which states and ethnographic museums today cannot be held accountable for crimes committed so long ago, (2) arguments about the high scientific or market value of the acquired objects, (3) statist logics in which only claims by ‘nation states’ are considered legitimate, (4) claims about the institutional incapacity and lack of conservational technical knowhow in the countries of origin, (6) legalistic as well as emotional arguments about how the objects have become ‘inalienable’ parts of European patrimony or the ‘heritage of humanity’, (7) attempts to minimize the number of objects eligible for restitution by focusing solely on objects that were violently robbed, (8) attempts to redefine ‘restitution’ in such a way that it no longer involves an actual physical return but rather takes the form of loans, travelling exhibitions and of digital or analogue copies rather than the originals, etc.
What is most striking about both these defensive discourses and the discourses of individuals and groups claiming the return of human remains, archives or objects, is that they are often incommensurate. Indeed, as Larissa Förster points out, arguments in this matter are generally underpinned by ‘distinct ontological and spiritual concepts, religious and political practices’ (Förster, 2016). In this conference, we want to explore the different challenges and dilemmas that are at stake in the claims for and the processes of the restitution of colonial acquisitions. We are particularly interested in the conflicting motivations and implicit philosophical convictions that underpin many of these discussions, and in the justificatory grounds on the basis of which restitution claims are formulated and/or denied.
We especially welcome papers that discuss the following issues:
Discussions about who claims restitution, and which objects are subjected to these claims
Discussions about the legal codes and practices that regulate restitution
Discussions about curational practices and colonial collections
Discussions about cultural and intellectual property
Nationalist and ethnic vs. universalist claims about the past (e.g. world heritage) and the specific techniques used in these discussions (e.g. claims about ‘authenticity’, cultural affinity vs. biological continuity)
Discussions about the (history of) political discourses of heritage
Discussions about (transgenerational) responsibility concerning historical injustices
Religious claims about the relations between past and present
Discussions about who has epistemic authority and can claim the proper expertise to speak about/for the past
We welcome a variety of approaches, including theoretical ones, however, we ask all contributors to use one or more concrete cases as a starting point.
Those interested in participating in the conference are asked to submit an abstract (maximum 500 words) before the 15 September 2019. Notifications of acceptance will be sent out by the end of September 2019.
Please send abstracts and questions to:
Eline Mestdagh Eline.Mestdagh@Ugent.be
Department of History – Ghent University
Sint Pietersnieuwstraat 35
9000 Ghent – Belgium
Prof. Dr. Berber Bevernage (TAPAS, INTH): professor at the Department of History, Ghent University
Prof. Dr. Nico Wouters (CEGESOMA): director of CEGESOMA
Dra. Marie-Gabrielle Verbergt (TAPAS, INTH): PhD Student at the Department of History, Ghent University
Dra. Eline Mestdagh (TAPAS, INTH): PhD Student at the Department of History, Ghent University
 Larissa Förster, ‘Plea for a more systematic, comparative, international and long-term approach to restitution, provenance research and the historiography of collection’, in: Museumkunde, 81(2016), 1, p. 50.