CONF: Imperial Artefacts: History, Law and the Looting of Cultural Heritage (Leiden / Tilburg University, 28-29 Jan 2021)

Imperial Artefacts: History, Law and the Looting of Cultural Heritage Leiden, Leiden / Tilburg Universities, 28-29 Jan 2021

This interdisciplinary conference will 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.

Dr Diana M. Natermann (Leiden University) und Inge van Hulle (Tilburg University), 2311VL Leiden (Netherlands)

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.

Conference Programme


09:15 – 09:30 Welcome words: Inge van Hulle & Diana M. Natermann
09:30 – 10:30 Keynote: Prof. Dr. Jürgen Zimmerer – Looting, restitution, reconciliation (09:30 Germany)

10:30 – 10:45 Coffee break

1. Diplomacy, Identity and Restitution – Panel Chair: Diana Natermann

– 10:45 – 11:15 Annalisa Bolin (10:45 Sweden), ‘Power and Possibility: The Return of Rwanda’s Stolen Bones’
– 11:15 – 11:45 Sahra Rausch (11:15 Germany), ‘An Affective De-Memorization? Debates over Colonial Amnesia regarding the Repatriation of Human Remains from Colonial Contexts in France and Germany’
– 11:45 – 12:15 Lars Müller (11:45 Germany), ‘Delaying, Evading, Rejecting. Western Reactions to Sri Lankan Demands for Restitution around 1980’

12:15 – 13:15 Lunch Break

2. Multi-disciplinary Perspectives on Colonial Violence and Restitution – Panel Chair: TBA

– 13:15 – 13:45 Rotem Giladi (13:15 Israel), ‘Reading Between Categories: Corpora, Culture, Property and the Laws of War’
– 13:45 – 14:15 Jan Huesgen (13:45 Germany), ‘The Enemy on Display – Suits of Armour in Military Museums’
– 14:15 – 14:45 Ivan Obadić, Robert Mrljic & Miran Marelja (14:15 Croatia, Belgium), ‘War, spoils and return of cultural property: framing of restitution law at the Congress of Vienna in 1815’

14:45 – 15:15 Coffee Break

3. Law and Restitution: Past & Present – Panel Chair: TBA

– 15:15 – 15:45 Afolasade A. Adewumi (15:15 Nigeria), ‘Does Utilitarianism Merge the Dichotomy Between the Nationalist and Internationalist Conception of Cultural Property in the Quest for Restitution?
– 15:45 – 16:15 Arianna Visconti (15:45 Italy), ‘A Paradox in Law: Italy’s Ambivalent Approach to Restitution Claims’
– 16:15 – 16:45 Marie-Sophie de Clippele & Bert Demarsin (16:15 Belgium), ‘Rights, wrongs and remedies – Working towards colonial heritage repatriation legislation for Belgium’

16:45 – 17:00 Coffee Break

4. Heritage, Discourse and the Representation of Cultural Artefacts – Panel Chair: TBA

– 17:00 – 17:30 Kokou Azamede (16:00 Togo), Acquisition methods of colonial objects and the traditional perception of the museum in German Togo
– 17:30 – 18:00 Janne Lahti (18:30 Finland), ‘Mesa Verde and Finland: Stolen Artefacts, Contested Discourses, and Nordic Colonial Legacies’
– 18:00 – 18:30 Donna Yates (18:00 The Netherlands) & Brieanah Gouveia (07:00 Hawaii), ‘Provenance narratives of colonial exploitation as value enhancers on the Oceanic art market’


09:15 – 10:15 Keynote: Junior Prof. Dr. Matthias Goldmann, (09:15 Germany) ‘Germany and the Herero and Nama: Will restitution ever happen?’

10:15 – 10:30 Coffee break

1. Enduring Coloniality and Cultural Heritage – Panel Chair: TBA

– 10:30 – 11:00 Iain Sandford and Ada Siqueira (20:30 Sydney, Australia), ‘The Destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves: A Study on the Role of International Law in Protecting Cultural Heritage in Times of Peace’
– 11:00 – 11:30 Norman Aselmeyer (11:00 Germany), Intangible Heritage: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and their Global (After)Lives
– 11:30 – 12:00 Marcelo Marques Miranda & Jully Acuña Suárez (11:30 The Netherlands), ‘Repatriation as a means, not as an end’

12:00 – 13:00 Lunch Break

2. International Legal History and Restitution Debates – Panel Chair: Inge van Hulle

– 13:00 – 13:30 Tomás Irish (12:00 UK), ‘“The Danger of Arbitrary Decisions”: The Paris Peace Conference and Cultural Reparations after the First World War’
– 13:30 – 14:00 Sebastian Willert (13:30 Germany), ‘A German Excavation for the Ottoman Imperial Museum? The Scramble for Objects between Berlin and Istanbul at Tell Halaf, 1911–1914’
– 14:00 – 14:30 Florian Wagner (14:00 Germany): ‘Colonialist Notions of Property: How European Lawyers Legitimized Dispossession (1880s-1950s)’

14:30 – 15:00 Coffee Break

3. Restitution, Heritage, and Human Rights – Panel Chair: TBA

– 15:00 – 15:30 Evelien Campfens (15:00 The Netherlands), ‘Whose cultural objects? Introducing ‘heritage title’ in a human rights law approach’
– 15:30 – 16:00 Jihane Chedouki (15:30 Morocco): ‘From a moral function to a utilitarian function: the transformation of ancient objects and monuments in the Arab world in the 19-20th centuries’
– 16:00 – 16:30 Gretchen Allen (15:00 Ireland), ‘A Way for the Giant’s Cause: an examination of Irish indigenous rights in the case of Charles Byrne’
– 16:30 – 17:00 Caroline Drieënhuizen & Fenneke Sysling (16:30 The Netherlands), ‘Java Man: restitution claims at the natural history museum’
– 17:00 Closing remarks: Inge van Hulle & Diana M. Natermann