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Who is the rightful owner of colonial art?

Colonial art and artefacts were not necessarily looted. Pieter ter Keurs, Professor of Museums, Collections and Society, calls for more nuance in the debate on art and collectors’ items from a loaded past. Inaugural speech on 2 December.

Papuan ancestor statuettes, antique daggers belonging to Indonesian sultans, Egyptian mummies... the list goes on. Museums and collectors from all around the world possess artefacts that are now the subject of discussion. Were these acquisitions above board? Ter Keurs, who is not only a professor but also Director of the LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development, calls for more research into the history of collections and provides a few telling examples.

The regalia of the sultan of Jambi is handed over to the Dutch authorities, 26 March 1904. Photo: KITLV collection

Colonial pressure

Take the symbolic kris (a dagger) of the Sultan of Jambi in the former Dutch East Indies. At the start of the 20th century, the sultan had been beaten by colonial troops, but his family still possessed precious heirlooms that were invested with important symbolic power. This meant that the threat of an uprising continued unabated. Under pressure from the colonial civil service, the family handed over the kris and other important heirlooms in 1904. The powerful kris was stored in the Museum of Batavian Society and thus ‘deactivated,’ as Ter Keurs puts it. ‘This wasn’t theft. The transfer took place after negotiations of which we don’t know the details. But the balance of power was skewed, of course.’ Today the weapon is in the possession of Museum Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta.

The kris of the Sultan of Jambi, Museum Nasional Indonesia.

Objects with no traces of use

Collections in a colonial context are not necessarily looted art, Ter Keurs says. Within a colonial situation, there are many different ways in which objects are collected. Large collections that were assembled for colonial exhibitions contain surprising numbers of objects that were new at the time. This can be seen in the 19th century collections with objects from the Lesser Sunda Islands in the Indonesian archipelago. There are no traces of use on the objects. Ter Keurs: ‘This suggests that the local population made objects especially for sale, and that people themselves therefore determined to a great extent what they wanted to get shot of.’

Mask from New Guinea

Ter Keurs also points to diplomatic gifts and the many situations in which there was a good relationship between the collector and original owner. He himself bought a mask in the Siassi Islands by New Guinea in 1983. It is a mask that depicts an important mythical ancestor, nakamutmut Worsaina. After a two-week ritual, the makers of the masks leave them to rot in the swamp, which is seen as the home of Worsaina. Ter Keurs: ‘When I bought the mask, they told me it was good that I’d be introducing the people in the Netherlands to our culture, but that the real Worsaina would always remain there. Museum Volkenkunde, the National Museum of Ethnology, in Leiden now has the mask – but not the spirit of the ancestor. For each new ritual, the inhabitants make a new mask and ‘charge’ it with the power of Worsaina, says Ter Keurs. 

The mask of nakamutmut Worsaina during an initiation ceremony in 1983, Siassi, Papua New Guinea

Discussion on looted art

Ter Keurs is keen to emphasise that this isn’t to downplay the negative aspects, violence and repression of colonialism. ‘It’s good to speak openly about this, but I want to add more nuance to the discussion on looted art.’ Ter Keurs believes that many critics with an opinion on looted art, including politicians, are unaware of how collections came about. Fortunately, people are starting to appreciate that more research is needed into the history of collections. He praises the initiative taken by the Rijksmuseum, NIOD and Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen to investigate whether their collections contain looted art. ‘This will ensure that the discussion in society is more factually correct and that our international cultural relations are easier to maintain.’

Photo above article: Buddha statues from Japan, acquired by Museum Volkenkunde in 1883 at the International Colonial Trade Exhibition in Amsterdam. Photo Erik van B/Wikimedia Commons
Text: Linda van Putten
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New endowed chair and research group: Museums, Collections and Society

In this programme, the University and various partners research the dynamics and implications of collecting. People have always been collectors, of trophies, stories, family photos and artworks. By assembling a collection, we decide what is worth being looked at and remembered – and what we want to hide and forget. Collecting is thus not only an individual affair but also a social phenomenon that plays a fundamental role in the development of history, culture and identity. Museums and other public collections play a pivotal role here: through the composition, presentation and interpretation of their collections they forge links between objects and society.

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