Year XII, n°39, May- Agosto 2022 [ Return, Heal, Redistribute

Year XII, n°39, May - August 2022

 curated by Domenico Sergi, Nur Sobers-Khan, Anna Chiara Cimoli and Giulia Grechi

In 1810, in the midst of the Napoleonic looting of art across Europe, the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova wrote to Napoleon: «Leave Your Majesty, […] at least leave something to Italy. These ancient monuments form a chain and a collection, with countless others that should not be removed from Rome or Naples». His plea was of little use: Italy and many other countries had been stripped of hundreds of masterpieces, which after the fall of Napoleonic France failed to be returned to their rightful owners. Furthermore, as French art historian Bénédicte Savoy recalls, «when we look at our altarpieces, they weren’t objects made to be shown at the Louvre. And we should remember that, when the Louvre first opened as a museum, some people laughed at the old ladies who were praying on their knees in front of Rubens’ retables. Also, when they were returned to Belgium in 1815, they went straight back to the churches and were not displayed  in museums» [1]

Despite its very specific historical profile, it is not difficult to read in this short account of Napoleonic Europe striking similarities in the way in which European Empires in particular have systematically looted (and failed to return) material culture from their colonies around the world. 

Restitution is a hotly debated topic in contemporary museum practice, often unmasking deeply rooted colonial epistemologies. In Europe, one of the most frequent objections to restitution is the weak scientific infrastructure of the communities where objects would be returned. As if museums, and museums only, knew how to preserve objects.  But what if there is no museum at the receiving end, and would this justify not meeting those demands?

Questions of restitution are key to the attainment of social justice for marginalised communities. Crucial to this conversation are the debates around the restitution of human remains, and objects or artworks removed during colonial or nationalist projects. In this context, the history of slavery in particular is deeply entangled with the formation of archives and museum collections in both the US and North America. Of central concern to questions of restitution are also silenced narratives, whether exceptional or commonplace, and the multiplicity of archives where ritual, religious, cultural, political and anthropological matters are deeply entangled. 

In the face of clear demands advanced by those who were formerly colonized and continue to be marginalized, deceived, and blackmailed, the amnesia of cultural institutions has never greater. Even when cultural institutions engage with the restitution of contested heritages, how can we ensure such practices don’t reinforce neo-colonial ideologies?


A number of recent controversies demand us to widen our gaze and to deeply rethink museums’ role in contemporary societies. Examples are the questions raised by the so-called Macron report and the work of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, the symbolic gesture of Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza at the Musée du quai Branly, the demonstrations of Decolonize This Place, and the topping of statues worldwide to cite a few. Furthermore, the work of indigenous scholars, and that of thinkers and writers from formerly (and currently) colonised communities demands to rethink the stories museums tell about objects, and to reimagine the role and function of cultural heritage. 

This issue aims to articulate a reflection on the concept of restitution in all its manifestations, both material and immaterial:
soothe, cure, heal
make visible

Contributions may address the processes behind the restitution of objects, collections, human remains, and artworks from any age or context. Submissions may also discuss how traces of memory are redistributed, how communities may deal with the reparation of traumas from a legal or psychological perspective. Contributions may also pertain to the renegotiation of values in the processes of mediation, and more generally any possibility of rewriting history (past and future) within a social justice framework, and discuss case studies concerning generative conflict, grassroot political mobilisation prevention, protection of rights, and care of common goods.

[1] Jana J. Haeckel (edited by), Everything passes except the past. Decolonizing Ethnographic Museums, Film Archives, and Public Space, Goethe Institut-Sternberg Press, Bruxelles-Londra 2021, p. 44.