How 4 countries are preparing to bring stolen treasures home

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How 4 countries are preparing to bring stolen treasures home
The Cameroonian heritage activist Sylvie Njobati, with a wooden female figure known as Ngonnso, at the Humboldt Forum, in Berlin. (Marc Sebastien Eils via The New York Times)

by Catherine Hickley



NEW YORK, NY.- The discussion about returning wrongfully acquired heritage to countries in the global south has, until now, largely focused on the steps taken by Western museums and governments. But away from the spotlight, in countries like Cameroon and Indonesia, heritage workers, government officials and activists are laying the groundwork to reclaim long lost treasures, a process most expect will take decades.

Identifying the objects and securing their recovery is just one part of the task. Challenges include establishing who will own and take care of the artifacts, upgrading museum infrastructure, involving communities and awakening public interest.

“We have an enormous mission,” said Placide Mumbembele Sanger, a professor at the University of Kinshasa who is advising Congo’s government. “This is not something we can complete in five years,” he added. “It will be a long process.”

The trigger for the global movement toward restituting plundered heritage was a 2017 pledge by President Emmanuel Macron of France, in a speech in Burkina Faso, to permanently give back African patrimony in French museums. Since then, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Belgium have set up national guidelines to process claims and return artifacts. A milestone in this process came last year, when Germany transferred ownership of 1,100 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

There have been some hiccups. A decision by Nigeria’s outgoing president to hand the returning artifacts to a direct descendant of the ruler they had been stolen from created confusion. Some German curators voiced concerns that the objects may not be cared for or displayed, but Germany’s government argued that the return of the Bronzes was unconditional, and it was not for Germany to dictate what Nigeria does with its reclaimed heritage.

That position is shared by heritage workers in Cameroon, Congo, Indonesia and Nepal, who said they are watching developments in Nigeria closely. The questions around returning heritage to the communities of origin is occupying them too: In Nepal, statues representing gods are heading back to the places of worship from which they were stolen; in Indonesia, the government is talking with regional museum curators to make museums more accessible so that ritual objects can be used in religious ceremonies.

Heritage workers in the global south also stressed the need to cooperate in researching the historical context of the losses and the stories behind individual objects.

Here is a closer look at developments in four countries.

Indonesia

The spectacular Lombok diamond, set in an intricately wrought hexagon of gold flowers and leaves, is one of nearly 500 Indonesian cultural treasures wrongfully acquired during Dutch colonial rule that are returning home next month. The restitutions, announced July 6 by the Dutch government, are likely to be the first of many: Tens of thousands of Indonesian objects remain in museums in Europe, primarily in the Netherlands.

Indonesia’s preparations to receive its heritage have developed in tandem with the structures the Netherlands has set up. In February 2021, Indonesia’s minister of culture established a restitution team as a counterpart to the Dutch government’s panel, led by a former ambassador to the Netherlands. In 2022, the Indonesian government sent a formal request to the Netherlands for the return of eight groups of objects: the July restitution comprised four of these groups. The Dutch panel has not yet issued its decision on the remaining four.

Hilmar Farid, the director general of Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture, said the Dutch panel wants his government to make claims for specific groups of objects in Dutch museums. “The problem is we don’t really know what exists,” he said. “The next step is for the Dutch to open access for Indonesian researchers to their museum collections.”

Because the objects left Indonesia more than a century ago, local narratives attached to them have, in many cases, been lost, Farid said. Each of the rings in the returning Lombok treasure, for instance, “has its own story,” he said. “The speed and volume of restitutions is not the priority: the priority is knowledge production. We will focus on items that tell stories.”

The Indonesian state will be the owner of all returning heritage and the National Museum in Jakarta will serve as its custodian. But Farid is also starting to engage local Indonesian communities and recently held talks with museum staff on the island of Lombok on how objects of local relevance can be displayed there in the future. Many of the returning items have ritual significance: Bowls in the Lombok treasure were traditionally used for offerings in religious ceremonies, for instance.

“Museums will need to be more open and accessible to different practices,” Farid said. “We will need a more participatory approach to allow people who are not traditional museumgoers to interact with the objects and their stories.”

While the National Museum in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has the capacity to care for the returning heritage, regional museums may not, Farid said. But this was a concern for Indonesia only, he said, not for the returning countries.

For now, the repatriation team’s mandate is limited to the Netherlands. But Farid said it would expand: He was aware of Indonesian heritage in museums in Germany, Britain, Belgium and France.

Congo

When Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, Congo’s prime minister, received an inventory of 84,000 Congolese heritage objects and natural specimens from his counterpart in Belgium last year, it was the symbolic beginning of what Lukonde described as a “reappropriation of our national memory.”

After that, the Congolese government adopted a decree to create a system for handling restituted cultural heritage from museums in Europe and invited experts in art history, law, philosophy and foreign relations to advise it.

Until 1960, Belgium controlled a vast territory in central Africa — around 80 times the size of the European country itself — including what is now Congo. Belgian explorers, soldiers, government representatives, merchants and missionaries took home items they had stolen, bought or otherwise acquired.

Last year, Belgium’s parliament approved a law paving the way for restitutions of cultural property to Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. It has also created a commission to work with its Congolese counterpart.

The law is sweeping in scope. Any object acquired during colonial rule is eligible for restitution — it does not have to have been looted.

But Mumbembele, the professor advising the Congolese government, said the emphasis would be on thoroughness, not pace.




“If Belgium sent us 20,000 objects in one go, the question would be where to put them,” he said. “We do not have space in our museums. The issue of museum infrastructure has to be dealt with in a responsible way.”

Mumbembele said Congo may be open to leaving some objects on display in Belgian museums as loans after ownership has been transferred, in the interest of “international visibility” for Congolese heritage.

Cameroon

Last year, Sylvie Njobati, a heritage activist from the West African nation of Cameroon, scored a major victory in her campaign to bring home looted objects from Germany.

Using the Twitter name BringBackNgonnso, Njobati has lobbied German museums and joined forces on social media with other groups calling for the restitution of colonial-era plunder.

A wooden figure decorated with cowrie shells called Ngonnso is on display in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. For the Nso people of Cameroon, to whom Njobati belongs, Ngonnso is much more than a lost artifact: The carved figure is the embodiment of the mother of their community, and its loss more than a century ago is keenly felt to this day.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the organization that oversees Berlin’s major museums, agreed in June 2022 to give Ngonnso back. To facilitate such returns, Cameroon’s government has set up a restitution commission, according to Maryse Nsangou Njikam, a culture adviser to the country’s embassy in Germany. Its members plan to visit Germany later this year to discuss how to proceed, Njobati said.

Other German holders of Cameroonian artifacts are gradually following Berlin’s lead: The University of Mainz, for instance, in July offered to return a beaded bracelet and a small bag containing personal items, brought back by a German military officer after he raided the kingdom of Nso in 1902.

But there are still an estimated 40,000 Cameroonian objects in German museums — more than in the state collections in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, according to a report produced by Cameroonian and German scholars.

The artifacts in Germany include textiles, musical instruments, ritual masks, manuscripts, weapons and tools, many of which were plundered in violent raids. The report lists at least 180 “punitive expeditions” involving looting and destruction during more than 30 years of German colonial rule.

“We have immense potential to reclaim our heritage and our dignity,” Njobati said. And while she had a special connection to Ngonnso, it was also “just the starting point,” she said. There is no inventory of Cameroonian heritage around the world, Njobati said, but added that she had seen artifacts in France, and that she believes there are objects in Portugal, as well.

“We are still a long way from restitution, because several steps have to be taken first,” Nsangou Mjikam told a news conference in Berlin in June. Members of the panel would visit Germany later this year to discuss how to proceed, she said.

Njobati said she hopes Ngonnso will return home at the end of the year. “It is our festive period,” she said. “December is the right time for us to do this.”

Nepal

Nepal’s situation is different from that of the three countries above. Its heritage was not plundered in a colonial context: After a 1951 revolution overturned the totalitarian Rana dynasty that had ruled the country for more than a century, Nepal opened its borders to the world. Western academics and tourists bought statues and carvings looted by locals, often from temples in the Kathmandu Valley, then took their purchases out of the country. The trafficking reached a peak in the 1970s and 1980s.

Many of the looted objects have since entered western museum collections via bequests and donations. “We are a poor country, and people saw how lucrative it was to sell their gods,” said Alisha Sijapati, the campaign director of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.

“Kathmandu was treated as an exotic playground. Communities lost something,” she said. “We rely on these statues — they have superpowers that help us with our lives.”

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, an activist organization, was established in 2021 and has already secured the return of more than 25 stolen religious statues, according to Sijapati. Those include a 1,000-year-old sculpture portraying two Hindu deities from the Dallas Museum of Art. The campaign researchers have traced many more and are working toward their return, Sijapati said.

The group traces plundered statues around the world and uses social media to get tips, circulate photos of missing sculptures and carvings, and to publicize its campaigns. It passes its findings to Nepal’s Department of Archaeology, which in turn works with the foreign ministry to issue claims to museums or institutions.

Sijapati said the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign helps to streamline this process: “We try to do the homework very well so that their work is easier.”

Nepal has reached a clear conclusion about where its restituted heritage belongs — a subject of global debate in the light of Nigeria’s decision to give the Benin Bronzes to royal descendants. Where it is possible and desired, recovered Nepalese heritage is returned to the community from which it was stolen, since the sculpted figures have a spiritual significance; Nepalese Hindus believe that their gods live within the statues.

“We see the museums in Nepal as a transit point,” Sijapati said. “The circle of repatriation is only complete when the statues return to the community. The community has the final say: If they don’t want something back, it will stay in the museum.”

So, in 2021, amid great festivity, the sculpture from Dallas was restored to the shrine from which it was taken, in Patan, near Kathmandu.

At the return ceremony, Riddhi Baba Pradhan, a former director of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology, said, “Tangible heritage as represented by the statuary is vital in keeping Nepal’s intangible heritage intact and vibrant.” The sculpture is now protected by surveillance cameras and motion sensors.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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