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Museums professionals in Belgium are asking to implement a transparent restitution policy, to work on an equal footing with former colonies, and to give back generously

That is what academics, curators, and heritage specialists are asking the Belgian authorities. They have presented a report on ethical principles for addressing the restitution and management of colonial collections.

In October 2018, some 60 academics and staff from the academic and museum and heritage sectors asked in an open letter for more discussion and for guidelines to be drafted regarding the restitution and management of African cultural heritage in Belgian museums. To encourage the process, a number of them set up an independent group of experts tasked with providing a starting point for these guidelines. The result can be read in the document “Ethical Principles for the Management and Restitution of Colonial Collections in Belgium,” the result of more than two years of research.

 The group does not consider the ‘Ethical Principles’ to be the end of the discussion, but rather a contribution to the overall debate. They are an invitation to all those who wish to contribute to reflecting on necessary reforms in policy, law and institutional practice with regard to collections acquired in a colonial context. Further discussion should proceed in collaboration with diaspora and other communities and countries of origin as well as with governments and the heritage sector in the respective countries. The group also urges the creation of opportunities for wider public debate on this issue.

 The group has formulated the following principles:

BOLD APPROACH

The Ethical Principles are only one part of the broader need and responsibility for critically examining the colonial past. The group therefore supports the work of the special parliamentary commission to investigate Belgium’s colonial past (DOC 55 1462/001). At present, Belgium is the only former colonizer to opt for such a broad approach.

 

NEED FOR AN OVERVIEW

There is currently no overview of colonial collections in public institutions and private hands in Belgium. Such collections come from Central Africa, but also from other former colonies. The term “collecting” covered a wide range of activities, some of which involved brute force. All were characterized by a fundamental lack of equity. For an effective restitution policy, a transparent and broad overview of these collections is indispensable.

 

PROVENANCE RESEARCH

Closely linked to the overview is the need for a new type of provenance research, which should include more research collaboration with provenance countries and communities, more opportunities for these countries and communities to establish priorities in such research, and additional funding for this type of research. While the intensification of provenance research is important, we also draw attention to the limitations of provenance research in providing conclusive answers about all collections and objects. Therefore, this group recommends the development of different pathways for restitution—based on provenance research as well as practical or ethical considerations.

 

BETTER LEGISLATION

Despite the common perception, there is currently no absolute legal obstacle to the restitution of colonial collections in the public domain, although it remains difficult in practice. Existing international, European, and national legislation and regulations for the protection of cultural heritage are inadequate. We therefore believe that new legislation is needed to facilitate the practice of restitution. The group supports the ‘Bill for the Restitution of Colonial Heritage’ by Dr. De Clippele and Prof. Dr. Demarsin.

 

WHO CAN CLAIM RESTITUTION?

Claimants can be nation states, regional or cultural groups and individual descendants of creators or owners. To adopt a claim, non-state actors preferably need the support of the state on whose territory they reside. However, the group strongly advocates the inclusion of non-state actors.

 

Co-authors:

Vincent Boele, Curator of Americas & Oceania Collections, MAS Museum Antwerp

Lies Busselen, Researcher on human remains in colonial collections – H.O.M.E., RMCA

Marie-Sophie de Clippele, PhD Law, Postdoctoral researcher F.R.S.-FNRS, Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles

Els De Palmenaer, Curator of the Africa Collection, MAS Antwerp

Roselyne Francken, Curator of the Asia Collection, MAS Antwerp

Sarah Van Beurden, Associate Professor of History and African Studies, The Ohio State University

Annelies Van de Ven, PhD Archaeology, Postdoctoral researcher F.R.S.-FNRS, Université catholique de Louvain

Yasmina Zian, PhD History, Postdoctoral researcher, Université de Neuchâtel, Université Libre de Bruxelles

 

in collaboration with:

Leen Beyers, Curator and Head of Research, MAS Antwerp

Tara Chapman (HOME project), Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Hugo DeBlock, Guest Professor of Anthropology, Department of Languages and Cultures, School of African Studies, Ghent University

Katrijn D’hamers (FARO, Flemish institution for cultural heritage)

Nicole Gesché-Koning, art historian and anthropologist, honorary professor Royal Art academy Brussels and ex-assistant at the Université libre de Bruxelles

Billy Kalonji, President of COMRAF (Comité de concertation entre le Musée de Tervuren et les Diasporas africaines), expert in cultural diversity and inclusion

Anne Wetsi Mpoma (historienne de l’art, fondatrice de Wetsi Art Gallery, asbl Nouveau Système Artistique)

Jos van Beurden, PhD Humanities, senior researcher colonial collections and restitution, Free University Amsterdam

Dr. Pauline van der Zee, art historian, Gent

Hein Vanhee, curator and researcher at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren

 

ICOM Belgium (final editing). ICOM Belgium is not responsible for the content, but stimulates with its contribution the current discussion in Belgium about colonial heritage.

 

Coordination

Katrijn D’hamers (FARO, Flemish institution for cultural heritage)

Sarah Van Beurden, Associate Professor of History and African Studies, The Ohio State University

The Ethical Principles for the Management and Restitution of Colonial Collections in Belgium can be read at www.restitutionbelgium.be

 

If you have any questions about the Ethical Principles, please contact:

– French: Yasmina Zian (Yasmina.Zian@ulb.ac.be) and Marie-Sophie De Clippele (marie-sophie.declippele@usaintlouis.be)

– Dutch: Sarah Van Beurden (sarah.vanbeurden@gmail.com) and Hugo DeBlock (Hugo.DeBlock@ugent.be)

– English: Sarah Van Beurden (sarah.vanbeurden@gmail.com)

Or at restitutionbelgium@gmail.com

ICOM UK