The Belgian revenue of colonial art deserves a hint

The return of colonial plundered art is “not a legal issue because it is an ethical issue”. This is what a lawyer, Lillian Gonwalves-Ho Kong Yu, said in a widely praised consultation with the Cultural Council last fall about not dealing fairly with the handling of objects from the National Art Gallery. Last week, the Belgian government demonstrated that an ethical issue could be remedied by apparently simple legal intervention, with a progressive decision to make Congo the direct owner of all items stolen from that country in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Dervoren. Lie. “Everything obtained illegally is not ours”, is the simple and correct explanation of Thomas Termin, Secretary of State for Belgian Scientific Policy.

The 883 pieces in question will initially be in Belgium. But the legal right goes to the state of Congo. Once Congo wishes, they can physically withdraw the goods as well. From the point of view of traditional security, it is natural to believe that rare images and attributes will be given accessible and safe space in a Congo collection, but it is not good to make any condition of return. Neither is Belgium. In about 35,000 other areas, it has not yet been determined whether they have become Belgian property. Therefore, there is a real chance that this move will lead to a significantly higher refund.

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The Belgian decision did not stand alone. A worldwide movement has been launched to correct historical injustice as much as possible. Earlier this year, Germany and the Metropolitan Museum in New York pledged to help set up a local museum by returning precious bronzes from the West African city of Benin to Nigeria. France and the United Kingdom are working to recover stolen goods from the former colonies. In the Netherlands, Minister Ingrid von Engelshoven (Culture, D66) accepted the advice of the Cultural Council to unconditionally convert the plundered art into a national collection.

In recent decades the country has been unable to separate the Belgian impetus from the way of work it is trying to reconcile with its colonial past. The museum in Tervuran, long known as the ‘last colonial museum in the world’, has often been a painful center of debate. The museum was founded by King Leopold II, who considered the Congo a private property from 1885 to 1908 and looted millions of lives. Until a major reconstruction is completed in 2018, much of the exhibition in the Permanent Museum predates Congo independence in 1960. But despite trying to provide more context, activists and scholars have continued to criticize in recent years. The ‘Africa Museum’ still exists Someone else’s museum, A biting review.

The new Belgian government, which promised to deal with the colonial past, is now taking a big step. Returning stolen items is not a debate in the museum world right now. There was always the question of how. The big difference in practices that last for many years elsewhere is that the Belgian stroke of the pen immediately leads to other, equal relationships. The perspective has been reversed: it is not Belgium, but what is happening to Congo that is being determined right now. It is undoubtedly innovative and should be followed.

Ferdinand Woolridge

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