History lessons often pose students and inquisitive adults alike with a perennial question – ‘why are we learning details about events that happened centuries ago, ones that hold no significance today?’ The simplest answer to these questions goes somewhat along the lines of not repeating the same mistakes as before. We’re learning how not to go wrong while also reading into the heritage of our country and that of others too. The first, of course, is not taken notice of, especially when it gets worked into nationalistic surges in any region – why admit the terrible gorges in our past when we can blissfully immerse ourselves in the glorious pride of some era.
Against this context of selective readings, the Netherlands has displayed some readiness to change. The country’s Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections has recommended that it show “willingness to return” the artefacts and other items taken from erstwhile colonies without permission. The report also underlines that “recognition of injustice and the willingness to rectify it as far as possible should be the key principles” pursued in doing so. However, the final decision rests with the government and unless it gives the nod, no further action should be expected.
Regardless of how this policy may unfurl, it makes some room for us to weigh the representations of colonial loot. In antique-laden museums, the ‘souvenirs’ from different parts of the globe are put on display, with bits of information typed out for the visitors’ benefit. Guides elaborate on the glory of wars and more as people pass each exhibit. But, at the end of it all, one misses a crucial aspect of what’s actually been put on display – injustice. It wouldn’t be futile if any country sets out to rectify where predecessors erred before.
But, as experts are pointing out, the task is not going to be easy at all. From the failed model of France’s plan to the amount of work required to give accurate estimates of the illegally procured items in the Netherlands, there are nails hammered all along the way – the excitement could die off and sooner than we know, like all other paperwork, this policy too would slide into the official red-tapes. Considering how the matter isn’t of great political regard, little or no attention would grab hold of the idea shunned away. The course shouldn’t turn out like this.
The former colonies of European Metropolises must be given what was taken away from them. As Lilian Goncalves-Ho Kang You (the report’s author) says, “if it doesn’t belong to you then you must return it.” When Emmanuel Macron made France’s repatriation policy clear in his 2017 speech, a committee was formed similar to the Netherlands’ and they too released a report which highlighted the importance of the artefacts in connecting the youth of African countries with their culture.
European museums have iterated whenever they can that their displays of objects of cultural and artistic value from around the world have resulted in an amalgamation of legacies – a unique ‘melting pot’ of sorts. They’ve put forth the idea that their care for these artefacts and subsequent introduction to a mixed world, only embodies the new era’s spirit of cultural exchanges. But in releasing such a statement, it makes assumptions that are, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of the very reasons offered as part of colonial pursuits and hegemony – it’s like writing over the past. These assumptions contradict the requests that have been rising from African and Asian countries. The Dutch Committee’s report mentions that the source nations’ requests would be honoured if any are made.
There’s nothing wrong in taking the right step and correcting mistakes even if these were committed by those who came before you – it’ll only clear the slate for your term. If anything, France should work on going beyond the single-digit tally that’s been entered under returns, Netherlands should not shy away from making the policy a reality, and Britain should follow suit.