When Should a Museum Return Looted Items? It’s Complicated.

Some museums comprise artworks that had been looted by the Nazis throughout World War II. Others have amassed collections of objects stolen by colonial powers. Yet others noticed their very own collections plundered because the spoils of warfare.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague has all of it.

Founded within the seventeenth century by a Dutch prince who ruled a colony in what’s now Brazil, the museum as soon as held many so-called “ethnographic” objects in its “cabinet of curiosities.” During the Napoleonic period, the French military stole its total portray assortment. And the Mauritshuis nonetheless holds two dozen works recognized as Nazi-looted artwork, for which rightful house owners haven’t been discovered.

“The whole history of the museum is very closely related to war booty and looted art,” stated the Mauritshuis’s director, Martine Gosselink, which is why she determined to mount, “Loot: 10 Stories,” an exhibition operating by way of Jan. 7, 2024, that explores the historical past of doubtful museum acquisitions.

“We want to show that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” Gosselink stated. “Every case has its own history, every object has its own biography, and every object needs its own approach.”

In a single room, the museum presents 10 objects, or teams of objects, every of which is linked to a nefarious previous. Two visitor curators, Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill, have developed digital actuality shows and quick documentary movies to assist guests inhabit the gadgets’ histories.

Putting on a VR headset and a Rembrandt self-portrait from 1669, for instance, guests just about enter an Austrian salt mine, the place Nazis hid stolen artwork throughout World War II. The Rembrandt was taken in 1940 from the Rijksmuseum, the place it had been on mortgage from a German-Jewish household. Hitler deliberate to hold it in a museum of his spoils, the Führermuseum. After the warfare, it was returned to the household and offered to the Mauritshuis.

The Rembrandt restitution was a clear-cut case, O’Neill defined, however others have confirmed far harder.

“There is a continuum,” he stated. “On the other end of the continuum, there are objects that have been looted that perhaps people don’t want back.”

In one VR expertise, guests are taken into a recreation of a temple on the island of Bali, Indonesia, the place a lifeless soldier is seen clutching an ornate dagger, generally known as a kris. It was stolen from an unknown warrior throughout a battle in 1849.

Just two years later, a German collector gave the kris to the King of Prussia for his artwork chamber, which might later turn out to be a part of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. Krisses are thought of non secular objects in Bali, the wall textual content on the Mauritshuis explains, however nobody has sought the return of this object, maybe as a result of, taken out of its context, the kris has misplaced its which means.

Jongsma and O’Neill traveled to Bali earlier this yr and introduced the kris to King of Klungkung, Ida Dewa Agung Istri Kanya, however he didn’t need it, as a result of he didn’t really feel a connection to it.

“That blew away some of my assumptions,” O’Neill stated.

Important current exhibitions at European museums have centered on colonial pillage, Napoleon’s plunder and Nazi-looted art, however it’s uncommon to see all three featured in a single present. Some specialists in restitution questioned the concept of mixing them, which might counsel the histories are equal.

“You shouldn’t mix them up in a great melting pot,” stated Gilbert Lupfer, the chief chairman of the German Lost Art Foundation. “For centuries, art was looted in times of crisis and times of war, and that’s nothing new. But Nazi looting and Napoleonic looting are not the same.”

When the Nazis looted artwork in Germany, it “was part of the Holocaust,” he stated. “That was not just a phenomenon of making money with art works from Jewish collections. It was part of the idea to destroy each form of Jewish life.” The key to creating such an exhibition work, Lupfer added, can be to offer sufficient context round such specifics.

Gosselink stated whereas different reveals went deeply into the context of every historical past, this present aimed to reveal the variations. “The point is that these are not comparable,” she stated. “The one and only comparison to be made is that they’re all looted.”

Arthur Brand, an unbiased Dutch detective who handles many circumstances of stolen artwork, stated he thought that combining these histories was an modern strategy, as a result of too usually folks take polarizing, excessive views on restitution.

“Some say everything should go back, and then on the other hand there are people who say let’s not give anything back,” he stated. “The Mauritshuis is trying to get everyone on board and get everyone involved in this topic, to see if there’s a middle path.”

But how can anybody request restitution of an object that’s been in a museum depot for therefore lengthy that its rightful house owners don’t know its lacking? A easy workers within the form of a feminine determine, owned by the Humboldt Forum, in Berlin, represents hundreds of objects taken from the Maroon folks of Suriname throughout Dutch colonial occasions. Little is thought in regards to the workers’s historical past besides that it got here taken from the Ndyuka group there.

Jongsma and O’Neill acquired in contact with Onias Landveld, a Surinamese poet linked to the Ndyukas, and recorded his go to to see the thing. A museum curator eliminated it from a vitrine and allowed Landsveld to carry it in his palms. “Why is this still here?” Landsveld requested in a video of the encounter that’s a part of the Maurithuis present. “It felt like they had me and my culture on display, like I was extinct,” he stated.

A museum curator requested him the place he thought the workers ought to go. “I wanted to tell her: just wrap it up and give it to me,” he stated. “I’ll bring it back; I’ll find a place.”

Of course, Landsveld is conscious that restitution is rarely so simple. No one has but made an official declare on the workers, stated O’Neill, “but if there is one, there will be a long political and personal journey.” He added, “I do think that opening up that conversation, wherever it leads, is necessary, and a central goal of this exhibition.”

Loot: 10 Stories

Through Jan. 7, 2024, on the Mauritshuis, in The Hague; mauritshuis.nl.

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