Editor’s note #5

The spring/summer of 2020, as a response to the murder of George Floyd, saw many hopeful changes within the larger discourse about the colonial past and the reverberations of it in the present. I remember feeling exhilarated when I watched the statue of Edward Colston disappear into the Bristol harbour. It particularly hit home because I had been fighting for the removal of a very similar statue, also close to a harbour. This statue is that of Jan Pieterszoon Coen – known as the butcher of the Banda Islands even in his own day – in the city of Hoorn, the Netherlands. Coen murdered approximately 15,000 people on the Banda Islands in order to attain the monopoly on the trade of nutmeg for the Dutch VOC. For reasons too numerous to mention, it is appalling that this man is honoured by a statue: ‘a mass murderer doesn’t deserve a statue’, reads one of the slogans in many protests that have taken place to have the statue removed. Emboldened by what had happened in Bristol, I joined some activists in Hoorn who’ve been fighting this particular issue for far longer than I have, to organise new protests and actions.[1] Perhaps the current global wave of anti-colonial protests was the momentum for which we had been waiting. We were hopeful, we protested, the statue is still there today… and so the struggle continues. But I learned something profound in the process. During a very small guerilla action, my fellow protesters of Moluccan descent kept speaking of their ancestors. When someone who was screaming at us tripped, or the person who asked us to leave dropped something: it was all the ancestors, helping us with our task at hand. Having a ‘typical white Dutch’ background myself, I couldn’t fathom what they meant exactly, but that didn’t matter. What I realised was that, viewed from this other epistemology, we weren’t just a handful of people doing this one – seemingly hopeless – action. It was all part of something much bigger, part of a struggle that has been ongoing for four hundred years, and involving literally countless people on whose shoulders we could now stand. It puts everything in a different perspective. One that sees matters in a relational way, and with a profound continuity of the past in the present. And there is much to learn from that. 

You have in your hands what could be said to be Errant’s ‘restitution issue’, but that would only be partly right. This issue is not about restitution per se, or whether restitution of colonially looted, pillaged, and stolen heritage should occur: it is clear that it should, in full, and without hesitation. Let that be the starting point. From there, Errant wishes to go beyond the question of ‘giving back’, and ask what is given back by whom and to whom, where, and how? In this now seemingly omnipresent discussion, who is speaking, and which voices are being listened to? To do this, as is reflected in the title of this issue, Errant proposes a shift in perspective away from dominant (Western) epistemic authorities to consider other ways of sensing and experiencing the world and let this guide us in the questions we have. What if the topic is approached from the point of view of the objects themselves? From the spirits that once inhabited them? From the ancestors who created them and among whom they once lived and breathed? However, the title of this issue should also be seen as a provocation given the fundamental impossibility of really placing oneself in the shoes of the ‘ancestors’, especially of those that are not one’s own. Rather, we aim to create a space where we allow these opacities to recover their agency out of years and years of silence and learn to listen differently. This necessarily means that this issue is not just about objects and their return, not just about physical ‘things’ that can change hands and location. It is also an issue about repair, without which restitution could be meaningless.

A few years before the protest movements of 2020, the long and ongoing struggle concerning the restitution of cultural heritage housed in various museums had already seen a significant turning point with the speech by French president Emmanuel Macron in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 2017. The last couple of years, accelerated by these two events, certainly have seen encouraging shifts in attitude, and museums all over Europe are conducting provenance research and developing programmes of return. But therein also lies a problem. Museums aren’t ‘just’ repositories of knowledge that house the bounty of colonial loot, they were created in tandem and as an essential part of the colonial project. They were formed to function as monuments to the idea of the superiority of the white European man, and through their activities of collecting, preserving, and exhibiting, firmly set those ideas in all strata of this world, while contributing to the minimising and destruction of other worlds. To conduct these researches and discussions solely from the vantage point of the museum therefore doesn’t take restitution and repair out of the coloniality of power, quite the opposite: it extends and continues the colonial project. 

The report that was commissioned by Macron and written by the Senegalese academic and writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, doesn’t leave any doubt: all stolen, looted, or otherwise wrongfully acquired cultural heritage, must be returned, and sooner rather than later. It also points to the many intricacies involved, and considerations that must be made, for instance: 

‘[W]hen we reflect on the question of cultural heritage objects, we must understand that it’s not simply objects that were taken, but reserves of energy, creative resources, reservoirs of potentials, forces engendering alternative figures and forms of the real, forces of germination; and this loss is incommensurable. Simply giving back these cultural objects won’t be the proper compensation. This force arises from a relation and mode of participation in the world that has been irremediably trampled upon.’[2]

What is needed then, and what is still often lacking, is a much broader scope in the question of restitution, which also (definitely) means going beyond inviting source communities to the table (whose table?), a strategy that many museums seem to employ but which ultimately only functions to protect their own legitimacy. The subtitle to our issue Epistemic Restitution and Rematriation offers two ways of doing this that all the contributions, although not explicitly, can be said to relate to. The way this issue has taken shape was led by our contributors who write about what this means to them, and the number of answers are equal to the number of contributors we were able to include in these pages. Only some contributions are about physical objects – in museums, or those already returned in ways that are questionable to say the least – while others are about the recovery and process of reconnecting with relations that have been severed by colonialism. Another important line is the categorisations put upon that which has been taken and how these wrongly inform discussions of return. A lot of work goes into the refusal to accept these categorisations, but it is this refusal that can be a first step in creating space for another perspective, one that does justice to the past in the present.

I hope that this issue of Errant can contribute to the discourse on what a different perspective on restitution could be. The editorial approach had to – of course – be ‘errant’. This meant, for instance, to take this discussion out of the museum. Although museums are the holders of cultural heritage, for this approach, they should not be the ones leading the discussion and so no museum professional was invited to contribute. Finally, an editorial decision was made that is essential in conveying the point this issue aims to make: not a single image of cultural heritage whose restitution has not yet been completed is reproduced in these pages. This is out of respect for the objects as well as for the people and lifeworlds they were taken from. Some of the cultural heritage discussed was never meant to be seen by people outside a specific community, let alone to have images of them sold online by the very institutions who took them. Modernity has an obsession with visibility and urges to make everything ‘transparent’ in order to make sense of it and ultimately control it. I believe by not participating in this visibility, by this active refusal, we enact a small gesture of care, and hopefully, even some restorative justice. 

[1] Shout out to Marisella de Cuba, Romy Rondeltap, Sarieke de Jong, and many others.

[2] Sarr, Felwine, Bénédicte Savoy. The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics. Transl. Drew S. Burk. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2018: p. 40.

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