Experts “frustrated” by Belgium’s government issue new restitution report

An independent panel of scholars and experts from Belgium have called on the country’s government to repatriate colonial-era acquisitions, citing a “lack of initiative from museums and government”. The panel have urged authorities to consider their guidelines for dealing with the nation’s colonial collections, which resemble those adopted in Germany in 2019.

Co-author of the report and associate professor at the Ohio State University, Sarah Van Beurden, said “we wanted to say—’look, this is legitimate, it’s important.’ It is not an attempt to monopolise the discussion, but hopefully it will help to contribute to debate among a broader cast of actors.”

The 70-page report urges Belgian authorities to create a neutral commission to evaluate restitution requests and a provenance research institute. Additionally, a new law to facilitate returns is being drafted by two independent legal experts, Marie-Sophie de Clippele and Bert Demarsin. Museums too should make inventories of their collections available on their websites, according to the report.

Belgium’s colonial history was particularly brutal under the rule of King Leopold II (1835-1909), who was denounced as a “mass murderer” in 2019 by the council of Kortrijk in west Flanders. Between 1885 and 1962, Belgium colonised present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. This colonisation included the looting of precious objects like ivory and rubber, which were later sold on the Belgian and European art market or displayed in national museums.

Most of these collections have their origin in Belgian colonies,” noted the report. “The trajectories these objects took are closely linked to the conquest, occupation, and colonization of the immense Central African region, 80 times the size of Belgium.”

Compiled over two years, the report continued: “By definition objects that belong to colonial collections were gathered in a context of deep structural inequality. In order to work towards decolonisation, heritage institutions must be willing to relinquish the gains they made owing to these unequal relationships.”

In July 2020, a special parliamentary commission was established to investigate Belgium’s negative legacy in the three previously colonised territories. But another co-author of the report, Hein Vanhee, believed this was simply not enough. Vanhee added “the debate on how to deal with colonial collections and the issue of restitution has not taken off in Belgium in recent years, despite significant progress made in the surrounding European countries.”

Thomas Dermine, Belgian state secretary of scientific policy, praised the report as “a very useful contribution to the restitution discussion.”

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