In a long-awaited step towards resolving its colonial misdeeds, the Netherlands is finally responding to multiple demands from Indonesia and Sri Lanka and returning 478 cultural objects looted during Dutch colonial rule.

“This is a historic moment,” State Secretary for Culture and Media Gunay Uslu said in a statement, adding that “this is the first time that we … return cultural objects that should never have been in the Netherlands”. The repatriation to Indonesia will take place during a handover ceremony at the National Museum of Ethnology on July 10; repatriation of the objects to Sri Lanka is scheduled for later this year.

The decision comes after a so anticipated apology from Dutch King Willem-Alexander acknowledging his country’s role in the slave trade. In 2020, he apologized in Indonesia for the “excessive violence” perpetrated during the Dutch colonial period. Although this apology was largely symbolic, the recent repatriation of objects at the request of a formerly colonized nation could be seen as an active step towards restorative justice.

Golden pihiya, or knife (before 1765), iron, gold, crystal, wood, 11 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches

The coins to be repatriated were taken during the Dutch colonial rule over Indonesia (1816-1941) and Sri Lanka (1658-1796). They include a richly decorated cannon looted from Kandy Palace in Sri Lanka in 1765 and four stone statues plundered temples in the ancient Javanese kingdom of Singhasari. The remaining part of the so-called “Lombok Treasure“, a collection of jewelry, precious stones and metals stolen from a royal palace on the Indonesian island of Lombok in 1895, will also be repatriated (the first group was returned in 1977).

Six of the objects will be removed from the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Dutch national museum; they mark the institution’s first repatriation of colonial objects.

Indonesia and Sri Lanka have already requested the return of the many looted cultural objects that remain in Dutch public collections. In July 2022, for example, Indonesia requested a list of cultural heritage it deemed to be of great significance, including the remains of “Java man”, the first known specimen of the ancient human homo erectus. Bonnie Triyana, member of the Indonesian repatriation committee, noted when the request for repatriation was a “sign of a much larger event”. However, the Java Man is not included in this first return of objects to be repatriated in July, because a decision has still to do about the remains. Claims related to the restitution of cultural objects looted by colonization have generally been satisfied reluctance on the Dutch side, and the negotiations are dragging on — until now.

Secretary of State Uslu said the Dutch government was acting on the recommendations of the special advisory committee on the return of cultural objects from the colonial context, created in 2019. The committee, chaired by Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, published a report in 2020, advising the Dutch government that “recognition of injustice and willingness to rectify it where possible should be key principles of policy on colonial collections in Dutch museums”. The report also stated that “the Netherlands must therefore be prepared to return unconditionally all cultural objects looted from the former Dutch colonies if the country of origin so requests”.

The report further indicates that redressing historical violence and injustice does not always have to involve the physical return of cultural objects. He warned that the Netherlands must be careful not to adopt a neo-colonial approach based solely on its own opinions and standards, but instead must focus on the needs of formerly colonized nations. This advice is undoubtedly one of the most progressive approaches in Europe: other countries, in particular The United Kingdomhave been accused of dragging their feet on the repatriation of looted cultural objects.

The repatriation of the Netherlands illustrates the fact that a European government can indeed modify its national policy and alienate objects which form part of its national collections.

Importantly, Secretary of State Uslu said the return of nearly 500 objects would mark the beginning of a period of “closer cooperation with Indonesia and Sri Lanka in areas such as the search for collections, exhibition and exchanges between museums”. If the Netherlands takes more proactive steps to account for its colonial misdeeds and honor the demands of home countries, other former colonizers could follow suit.

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