Decolonisation and colonial collections: An unresolved conflict

Jos van Beurden*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


If decolonisation merely meant independence for a colony, it would lie in the distant past. Nowadays, however, decolonisation is considered to be an ongoing process and unresolved conflict. This forum highlights the migration of cultural and historical treasures to the metropoles during five centuries of European dominance and explores how to address it. Most former colonial powers in Europe, their museums and many historians have long trivialized this transfer. In November 2017, however, a European head of state announced that the return of disputed colonial objects to Africa would become a policy priority. Since 2013 Erfgoed Delft, the then cultural heritage department of the city of Delft, and the present National Museum of World Cultures have been involved in a large scale transfer of objects to Indonesia. In September 2017, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam launched a research project on the provenance of ten colonial objects. Some former source countries (e.g. China, Benin, Nigeria and Ethiopia) are active in the discussion about missing colonial collections. They are particularly eager to retrieve war booty. Other source countries are less involved. This forum shows that a discussion about the future of these treasures is far broader than the actual objects and their return. None of the contributors argues that returning tainted colonial collections is the only way to resolve this conflict, or that this issue is the only one that needs to be addressed. Instead, they present alternatives and discuss the complexities surrounding colonial objects and issues of return.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-78
Number of pages13
JournalBijdragen en mededelingen betreffende de geschiedenis der Nederlanden
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


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