Decolonising the museum

Dutch Council of Culture acknowledges the violent history of art acquisitions. It’s a welcome forthrightness

In the 1830s, a group of Dutch naturalists went on an expedition to a river island on the south coast of Borneo. They were given a warm welcome by the island’s Sultan, Panembahan Adam, who took his guests on a guided tour of the rainforests in his domain. But there was something else that dazzled the scientists — the Sultan’s gemstones.

How could a Dutch protectorate be so rich? The matter reached the Dutch government. In the 1850s, it abolished the Sultanate and confiscated Adam’s property. In the booty was an uncut diamond, the Banjarmasin Diamond. The 70-carat gemstone was shipped to the Netherlands and went on to become a part of the collection at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The museum has now supported a proposal by the Dutch Council of Culture to return “thousands of pieces of art looted by colonists”.

Among them is the Banjarmasin Diamond.

Collections in several Western museums have uncomfortable histories. Artefacts acquired through invasion, colonisation and unfair purchases were selected, organised and exhibited according to tags given by Europeans. Stripped of their cultural contexts, they challenge the capacity of the colonised to be authors of their own histories decades after decolonisation.

The British Museum holds on to the Elgin Marbles by describing itself as the preserver of the sculptures, which, left to the 19th century Ottoman rulers, might have been crushed to make limestone. The museum describes the sculptures — and other artefacts in its possession, including the Kohinoor — as “unique resources for the world”, which allow “visitors to explore the interconnected nature of human cultures”.

It is such claims to cosmopolitanism that the Dutch Council of Culture challenges. “Injustice was done to the local populations of former colonial territories when objects were taken against their will,” says a report it issued last week. The question is: Can repatriation undo the elision of colonial violence in Western museums?

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