Claims for repatriation of cultural objects have been on the increase in the last 20 years, sparking debate over what stance museums should take on collections formed during colonial expansion. Fueled by the advancement of post-colonial studies and by the increased visibility around marginalized communities, repatriation efforts have been countered by the argument, made primarily by the current holders of disputed pieces, that they can be best safeguarded in their present host institutions. Researchers, however, see a need to rethink the current approach to the use of and access to these collections, in order to provide an opportunity for the groups to which they originally belonged to have a voice in decisions concerning their future.
There are three primary situations in which claims for repatriation and restitution of cultural objects arise, explains Rodrigo Christofoletti, a professor in the History Department at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF), in Minas Gerais. The first and most recent phenomenon involves the theft and illegal trafficking of cultural heritage, a business estimated to be worth approximately US$7 billion per year according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “In these situations, claims for repatriation are supported by international treaties, most introduced during or after the 1970s,” he says. Another situation giving rise to repatriation disputes, and one which has occurred since antiquity, is looting in the context of wars or occupations. “Thirdly, claims for repatriation may be made in respect of cultural objects removed in a colonial or similar setting, such as those formerly belonging to indigenous and other communities who were unable to prevent the looting of their cultural heritage. These are typically the most contentious,” explains Christofoletti, who leads the Heritage and International Relations Research Group at UFJF. Since the mid-2000s, he says, the maintaining of non-European cultural heritage at European institutions has been increasingly challenged.
In Brazil, restitution claims primarily involve indigenous objects obtained between 1500 and 1815. A case in point was an episode in 1987 when, following discussions with anthropologists working in their territories, the Kraho decided to claim restitution of a sacred axehead kept at the University of São Paulo’s (USP) Paulista Museum. After months of negotiations, USP returned the item on the condition that ownership of the axehead would be retained by Paulista Museum until its national heritage status were declared by the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN)—which has yet to occur. “The axehead has since been in the possession of the Kraho in Tocantins, and has regained its religious and social function”, says Christofoletti.
Another notable episode occurred in 2000 during an exhibition in São Paulo titled Rediscovery: 500 years or more. A red feather cape that had belonged to the Tupinamba was brought from the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen, for the exhibition. A group of Tupinamba descendants now living in Brazil’s Northeastern municipality of Ilhéus, Bahia—known as the Tupinamba de Olivença—soon learned about the artifact and asked that it remain in the country. Their claim, however, was unsuccessful. “Around the mid-eighteenth century, the Tupinamba branched out into several groups and scattered along Brazil’s coast, from Pará to São Paulo, and more than one group now claims to be the rightful descendants of the Tupinamba. If the Tupinamba de Olivença’s repatriation claim had been accepted, there would likely have been disputes over the cape,” says Christofoletti. He wonders whether it would have been more appropriate that the Brazilian government claim repatriation instead, and take responsibility for the safekeeping of the object in one of its museums. Founded in , the National Museum of Denmark is believed to have received the cape from John Maurice of Nassau (1604–1679), governor of the Dutch possessions in Brazil on behalf of the Dutch West India Company. Christofoletti explains that there are now six remaining Tupinamba capes known to historians. All are held outside Brazil in the collections of European museums.
“Prestigious museums like the National Museum of Denmark and the British Museum, in London, have argued that these rare pieces will be better safeguarded and preserved if kept in their collections. They are generally reluctant to part even with looted objects, many of which are kept in storage and not accessible to the general public,” he says. The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, released a statement in January recognizing that parts of the collections obtained during the colonial period were forcibly removed from their original territories. In relation to Congo, the statement admits that “certain objects were obtained using methods that were then illegal in Belgium, such as looting, hostage-taking, or desecration.” The museum says it plans to create a working group of policymakers from Congo and Belgium to discuss the potential restitution of African cultural heritage. In a telephone interview, Julien Volper, the institution’s curator of ethnographic collections, noted that all objects in the museum’s collection are the property of the Belgian government and any discussions on repatriation would necessarily need to involve the governments of the two nations concerned. He recalls how between the 1970s and the 1980s, following requests by the then president of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997), the museum made a long-term loan of 114 items in its collection to the African country’s national museum. By 2007, only 21 of those 114 items remained in collections managed by the Institute of National Museums of Congo. The rest had vanished.
Christofoletti believes that returning cultural heritage objects held as a colonial legacy can provide an opportunity for groups connected to those items to reclaim their past and strengthen their identities. “Institutions like the British Museum or the Louvre, in Paris, also have huge collections of items that were looted during the colonial period. These institutions need to rethink their relationship with past periods of territorial occupation,” says the historian.
Maria Cristina Cortez Wissenbach, a professor in the History Department at the USP School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH), highlights the role that large European universities have played in shaping our understanding of Africa. She notes, for example, that the Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Belgium, has the world’s largest collection of Central African artifacts. The collection was formed during the course of military campaigns sponsored by King Leopold II (1835-1909) in Congo, which was his personal property between 1885 and 1908, and later a Belgian colony until 1960. “Objects were looted with each conquest,” explains Wissenbach.
On reopening in August 2018, after five years of renovations, the museum in Tervuren sought to rethink its exhibit design to provide a critical view of the colonial period. No longer exhibited, for example, are sculptures regarded as caricatures or as exalting the Belgian colonists. But for many associations of Afro-descendants living in Belgium, who have called for investigations into the origin of 125,000 ethnographic objects, the effort was not enough. “Some museum collections created between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were obtained by less than noble means, including violent military campaigns and exploitation of unequal bargaining power,” says historian David William Aparecido Ribeiro, who conducted studies at the Belgian museum between 2019 and 2020 as part of his doctoral research at USP. In calling for investigations to determine how these pieces found their way to the museum, these associations are not necessarily demanding that they be returned, but rather that their origin be made public to inform discussion about cases where repatriation is warranted.
Ribeiro notes that repatriation became a hot topic in the 1970s after several African countries won their independence, but faded from public debate in the following decades. The discussion was revived at the beginning of this century and gained further momentum last year with the publication of a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron. The report recommends that a a number of African artifacts, including thrones and statues, be returned to their countries of origin on request. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1960s, France had as many as 20 colonies in Africa. “Repatriation claims are attempts by despoiled communities to reclaim their historical narrative,” says Ribeiro.
“Some experts argue that objects under dispute ought to remain in the museums that have ensured their survival over all these years,” says the researcher. Among the restitutions being claimed by African nations are Benin Bronzes—sculptures of former kings and queens that decorated palaces in the ancient Kingdom of Benin, in what is now modern-day Nigeria—held by the British Museum. In Ribeiro’s view, university museums with ethnographic and archaeological collections can play a central role in this movement to resignify collections formed as colonial legacies. Not only do they have researchers dedicated to studying the peoples from whence these objects came, but they also offer more democratic venues for traditional populations to access their collections, he argues. In Brazil, explains the historian, this movement began to take shape following the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution, under which indigenous and quilombo communities became entitled to certain rights. “Although museums do view the culture of these communities as something needing to be preserved, their members are not genuinely protagonists of the underlying historical processes,” he notes.
In her research over the past 10 years, museologist Marília Xavier Cury, of USP’s Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE), has sought to cultivate new and positive relationships between indigenous peoples and the museum. “MAE has objects that were collected by violent means, such as during the early twentieth–century colonization of western São Paulo State. While we should not allow history to be erased, we need to remove the stigma from the past by attaching new meanings to these collections,” she argues. In 2016, three indigenous peoples were invited to develop an exhibition with items from the museum’s collection. The MAE, which was founded in 1989, has collections created by sister USP institutions, such as Paulista Museum, where the collections of artifacts from the Kaingang, Guarani-Nhandewa, and Terena, three indigenous peoples living in the midwest of São Paulo State, were originally developed. “We hope through this collaboration to bring the history of these objects to the present,” she says. The Guarani-nhandeva, Terena, and Kaigang, with whom Cury has previously collaborated on research, are now also collaborating with the museum in seeking new meanings for the collections. “In this arrangement, the museum agrees to be accountable to indigenous peoples for its handling of their ancestors’ objects, while they, in turn, offer insights into the meanings of these pieces in their own cultures,” she explains.
Through this collaboration, an exhibition titled, Resistance now! Strengthening and uniting indigenous cultures, was organized in early 2019. “The exhibition provided an opportunity for MAE to reevaluate its social role, to explore the origins and meanings of its collection, and to reconcile with indigenous peoples,” she says. Cury notes that while post-colonial theories provided a starting point for the movement to rethink the colonial legacy of museums, it was through the decolonization theories of intellectuals such as Portuguese Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Peruvian Aníbal Quijano (1928–2018) that these ideas gained traction. “It was postcolonialism that first acknowledged the role of minority groups in history, but it was decolonial thinking which opened the doors for them to enter academic institutions,” she says. First emerging in the 1990s, decolonialism is an offshoot of postcolonial theories that seeks to incorporate other forms of knowledge in its investigations, including the knowledge of native peoples (see the article Expanded knowledge in Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 285).
One of the curators of the MAE exhibition, Susilene Elias de Melo, a Kaingang leader and assistant to the shaman on the Vanuire Indigenous Reserve in São Paulo, describes two particular artifacts whose meanings were expanded through the collaboration: earthenware pots with oval bottoms, called kukron, which were originally used to cook and store food, and sound-making objects used to frighten away enemies and in sacred rituals. “Both are made of ceramics, an essential element of Kaingan culture, but were no longer being crafted in the village. Through our contact with these objects, we were able to revive important elements of our identity and our history,” she says. “If museums agree to preserve these pieces and work with us in establishing their meaning, then there is no need to claim restitution,” she concludes. Melo explains that most repatriation claims involve items that can help to bring spiritual closure. This category includes mortal remains which, along with cultural objects, are often found in the collections of archeology and natural science museums. “The presence of human remains in museums illustrates how throughout history, our peoples have been dehumanized and treated only as an object of study,” laments Melo, noting, however, that most museums no longer exhibit the original human remains, but only replicas, if at all.
For Archaeologist Veronica Wesolowski of MAE, the case can be made that research on human remains allows inferences to be made about diseases and causes of death, as well as providing insight into indigenous peoples’ health and care-giving practices. “But throughout history, Western science has dealt with human remains from a perspective of power, and this needs to be revisited,” she asserts. Wesolowski explains that although the Brazilian Archeology Society (SAB) has a code of ethics that sets out guidance on research practices, Brazil has not enacted national laws dealing with human remains. “In England, for example, the law is clear. Skeletons can be examined and studied in some cases, but must be returned to their community of origin within a set time frame,” he says. In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act establishes rules on research activities, including archaeological excavations, at burial sites and on the removal of objects for placement in museums.
International laws on the repatriation of objects removed from their original territories during colonial periods are limited in scope. Marcílio Franca, a professor of art law at the School of Law of the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB), explains that the regulatory frameworks introduced since the 1970s are not retroactive. In the current context of trafficking in cultural property, when a listed heritage object is stolen or lost, the first steps to take are to report the incident to the police and the federal historical heritage authority, IPHAN, or to the state authority, which will then log the item into the Missing Cultural Heritage Database. It is therefore important, Franca notes, that collectors and museums keep a record of photos and descriptions of their collections. “Today there are applications available that allow you to create domestic databases using object IDs, which provide details on an object’s value, place and date of purchase, and previous owners,” says Franca, who also heads the Cultural Heritage Task Force at the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Paraíba. Object IDs are helpful to police work as they can be used to document stolen objects in the Interpol database.
Fabio Guimarães Rolim, general manager for Authorization and Surveillance at IPHAN’s Department of Material Heritage and Surveillance, explains that Brazil has no unified database of missing or stolen cultural property. Instead, there are multiple platforms at different institutions, such as IPHAN and the Brazilian Institute of Museums (IBRAM). Rolim also explains that the terms “restitution” and “repatriation” have separate meanings. “Restitution means returning stolen property to its place of origin. Repatriation involves the returning of objects obtained under circumstances not easily defined as unlawful, or during historical periods in which the removal of objects from their contexts of origin was not viewed as unlawful as it is today,” he says, noting that this is the case, for example, of European archaeological and ethnographic collections developed during colonial periods. Christofoletti of UFJF observes that Brazil has one of the world’s highest rates of illegal exports of cultural property. Despite this, Rolim, of IPHAN, says that his institute is unaware of any claims by the Brazilian government to repatriate cultural property that has been removed from the country illegally.
Tullio Scovazzi, a professor of international law at the University of Milano-Bicocca, in Italy, who has authored dozens of studies involving claims for repatriation of cultural goods around the world, explains that these legal disputes typically juxtapose two opposing views on cultural heritage. The first is based on the assumption that cultural objects must be able to move freely between States, subject to customs restrictions, while the second emphasizes the notion that cultural heritage represents the history and identity of a given people, and that the State of origin therefore has a right to limit or prohibit its export. “These radically differing points of view make it difficult to establish treaties to address the issue of illegal movements of cultural heritage,” Scovazzi said in an email interview with Pesquisa FAPESP. In terms of the restitution of cultural goods removed during colonial periods, he recognizes that in many cases the response from European museums has been negative. “In my opinion, the removal of cultural property during colonization is a typical example of another people’s weaknesses being exploited. For this reason, all such property should be returned on request,” he concludes.
Heritage, memory, and narratives of Afro-Brazilian and indigenous history: relations between cultural policies and knowledge production in contemporary Brazil (no. 17/19781-3); Grant Mechanism Doctoral (PhD) Fellowship; Principal Investigator Maria Cristina Cortez Wissenbach (USP); Beneficiary David William Aparecido Ribeiro; Investment R$171,575.59.
CURY, M. X. Museu e exposição – O exercício comunicacional da colaboração e da descolonização com indígenas. Museu Goeldi: 150 anos de ciência na Amazônia. pp. 313–48. 2019.
CHRISTOFOLETTI, R. and ACERBI, V. S. Brazil on the circuit of international cultural relations: Return and devolution of ethnographic goods. Anais do 1º Congresso Internacional Gestão dos Patrimônios da Humanidade Urbanos. 2020.
SCOVAZZI, T. Meriti e limiti dei trattati multilateral sulla restituzione di beni culturali illecitamente esportati. Editoriale Scientifica. Vol. 3, pp. 1633–58. July 2019.