This interdisciplinary conference aspires to bring together (post-)colonial historians, legal historians, curators, international lawyers, and others engaged with the field to establish research collaborations by critically investigating stories of colonial looting, the framing of colonial history within museums, the origins of the legal framework concerning European laws of war and restitution, as well as a way forward for restitution claims.
The notion that cultural treasures are not legitimate spoils of war, contradicts norms that were accepted according to the law of nations for centuries. However, after the public outrage occasioned by the plunder of Belgium and Italy by Napoleon’s forces, the nineteenth century saw a gradual rise of several initiatives such as the Lieber Code (1863), the Brussels Declaration (1874), the Oxford Manual (1880) and the Hague Convention II (1899) that sought to limit or outlaw the seizure and confiscation of cultural and private property. Within this nineteenth-century development the spoliation of non-Western countries by imperial powers was largely ignored or even explicitly condoned. Arguments that bolstered the expropriation within imperial contexts were framed in an explicitly racist and dehumanising discourse, which placed non-Western states wholly or partially outside of the application of European laws of war. The result was the destruction of indigenous heritage and the steady flow of cultural artefacts and valuable manuscripts from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australasia to Western archives, museums, and public spaces.
Since decolonisation, several former colonies of the Global South have led the way in mounting public pressure on Western governments and museums to address the legacy of colonial looting and have started legal procedures for reclaiming cultural property. However, since the beginning of the twentieth century the international legal framework for reclaiming cultural property has expanded considerably, many of these instruments remain ill-adapted to the legal relationship that existed between coloniser and colonised. Also, legal proceedings that have restitution as their objective are further complicated by the confluence of public international law, private law, and constitutional law of various jurisdictions which provides for a legal Gordian knot. Procedurally, the burden of proof lies with the requesting state, which might have insufficient financial or legal means at its disposal to pursue lengthy legal procedures.
Meanwhile, many Western museums fear the depletion of their collections and voice their scepticism of political endeavours to return said artefacts – especially since French President Macron’s statement in 2017 during a visit through Burkina Faso in 2017. In a report commissioned by President Macron and written by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy it is stated that artefacts taken without consent from Africa during French colonialism shall be repatriated. And yet, in spite of political, financial, and legal difficulties, restitution claims are mounting in frequency. Also, over the past decade, Western governments have shown increasing openness towards collaboration with the Global South to trace looted artefacts and to return these to their countries of origin. This is especially the case in relation to the issue of giving back human remains.
Call for abstracts
In light of these developments we welcome contributions that focus on (but are not necessarily limited to) following topics:
- Histories of specific cases of misappropriation, of colonial violence, of how objects travelled and ended up in Western museums and archives (provenance)
- Histories of the laws of war in colonial contexts in legal practice and in legal theory
- Histories of domestic constitutional and private law concerning restitution
- Histories of the actors involved: imperials agents, indigenous resistance to spoliation, NGO’s, etc.
- Museology: how are colonial objects framed, styled and/or contextualised
- Historiography: histories of the critical debate concerning law, colonial museums and restitution
- De lege ferenda: how can/should legal restitution move forward?
- (Post)colonial debates on the restitution of heritage objects
- Interconnectedness of identity and historical artefacts
- Experience with restitutions concerning art looted by Nazis and its (possible) impact on restituting looted colonial art.