Restitution Conference: Call for Papers

Restitution of Colonial Collections in Europe

Possibilities, Challenges, Dilemmas 

CALL FOR PAPERS (closed on September 15, 2019)

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”[1], 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[2], a report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy on Macron’s demand in 2018[3] and Return of Cultural Objects: Principles and Process by the Dutch Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.[4] 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).[5] 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.

Version française ici!


[5] 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.