The Journey to Reclaim Wrongfully Acquired Heritage in the Global South
The global conversation surrounding the return of wrongfully acquired heritage to countries in the global south has predominantly focused on actions taken by Western museums and governments. However, behind the scenes in countries like Cameroon and Indonesia, heritage workers, government officials, and activists are laying the groundwork for reclaiming long-lost treasures. This process is anticipated to take several decades.
Identifying the objects and securing their recovery represents just one aspect of the task at hand. Challenges also include determining ownership and caretaking responsibilities for the artifacts, upgrading museum infrastructure, involving communities, and generating public interest. This mission is a daunting one, according to Placide Mumbembele Sanger, a professor at the University of Kinshasa advising the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He acknowledges that completing this process will not happen within a short span of five years, as it requires a long-term commitment.
Hiccups and Concerns
Throughout the process, there have been challenges. For instance, the decision by Nigeria’s outgoing president to return artifacts to a direct descendant of the ruler they were stolen from caused confusion. German curators also expressed concerns about the care and display of the returned objects. However, the German government argued that the return of the Bronzes was unconditional, and it was not their place to dictate Nigeria’s actions with regard to its reclaimed heritage. Heritage workers in Cameroon, Congo, Indonesia, and Nepal are closely monitoring the developments in Nigeria, as they grapple with their own questions regarding the return of heritage to their original communities.
Developments in Four Countries
In July, the Dutch government announced the impending return of nearly 500 Indonesian cultural treasures wrongfully acquired during Dutch colonial rule. These restitutions mark the beginning of a series of returns, as tens of thousands of Indonesian objects still reside in European museums, primarily in the Netherlands. Indonesia has established a restitution team, which works in collaboration with the structures set up by the Netherlands. The Indonesian government has sent a formal request for the return of eight groups of objects, with the July restitution encompassing four of these groups. The focus now shifts to gaining access to Dutch museum collections to conduct the necessary research on the existence of Indonesian heritage objects. Indonesia intends to prioritize items that carry significant cultural narratives, highlighting the importance of knowledge production. The state will be the owner of all returned heritage, with the National Museum in Jakarta serving as the custodian. Efforts are being made to ensure that regional museums are also prepared to receive and care for the returning heritage.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Last year, the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo received an inventory of 84,000 Congolese heritage objects and natural specimens from Belgium, marking the beginning of the country’s “reappropriation of our national memory.” In response, the Congolese government established a system for handling restituted cultural heritage and sought advice from experts in various fields. Belgium approved a law allowing for the restitution of cultural property to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. The law is inclusive, encompassing any object acquired during colonial rule, regardless of how it was obtained. However, emphasis is placed on thoroughness rather than speed, as the country needs to address issues of museum infrastructure. The possibility of leaving some objects on display in Belgian museums as loans after ownership has been transferred is being considered for international visibility.
Cameroonian heritage activist Sylvie Njobati has successfully advocated for the return of looted objects from Germany, particularly the wooden figure called Ngonnso, which holds great cultural significance for the Nso people of Cameroon. To facilitate returns, Cameroon’s government has established a restitution commission. Other German holders of Cameroonian artifacts are also beginning to follow Berlin’s lead. However, there are still an estimated 40,000 Cameroonian objects in German museums. A report highlights the immense potential for reclaiming Cameroonian heritage, with Ngonnso representing just the starting point. The absence of a comprehensive inventory poses a challenge, but efforts to recover heritage and restore dignity continue.
The journey to reclaim wrongfully acquired heritage in the global south involves numerous challenges and considerations. As countries like Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and others navigate this process, they seek to establish ownership, improve museum infrastructure, involve communities, and foster a greater understanding of the historical context and stories behind individual objects. The efforts in these countries highlight the importance of international cooperation, research, and a participatory approach to cultural heritage restitution.