Breaking the Colonial Bonds: Netherlands Returns 472 Indonesian Artifacts

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Breaking the Colonial Bonds: Netherlands Returns 472 Indonesian Artifacts

The Netherlands has announced that it will return to Indonesia and Sri Lanka 478 historical artifacts stolen during their colonization. Indonesia will receive 472 objects, consisting of 335 gold and silver items looted during the Lombok War in 1894, 132 art objects from the Pita Maha Collection in Bali, four statues from the Singhasari Kingdom, and a Keris Klungkung.

On July 10, 2023, the repatriation of these objects to Indonesia took place at the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden. Meanwhile, the repatriation to Sri Lanka will take place later this year. This action is part of the Dutch government's efforts to improve relations with its former colonies in Asia and Africa and to restore its colonial heritage.

During the handover ceremony on July 10, the Technical Arrangement and Acknowledgement of Transfer of Rights from the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Republic of Indonesia was also signed. Indonesia was represented by  Hilmar Farid, Director General of Culture of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology Republic of Indonesia. Meanwhile, the Netherlands was represented by Gunay Uslu as State Secretary for Culture and Media of the Netherlands.

The return of the artifacts comes after Prime Minister Mark Rutte last month officially recognized Indonesia's independence date as August 17, 1945, after previously stating that Indonesian sovereignty was gained in 1949. Rutte has also apologized for the violence committed by Dutch troops during Indonesia's struggle for independence. 

This is a historic step, as the artifacts are the first to be returned to their country of origin, following the recommendations of a commission in the Netherlands to study requests for the return of valuable artifacts to state museums. These recommendations were presented in the Commission's 2020 Report. Gunay Uslu has also previously said that this is the first time they have followed the committee's recommendation to return objects that should not be in the Netherlands. 

The return of the artifacts by the Netherlands is also part of Indonesia's efforts to return cultural heritage that was illegally taken during colonial rule. The return of the artifacts has been welcomed by the Indonesian government and is seen as an important step in the restoration of Indonesia's cultural heritage.

The Commission is currently reviewing other requests for restitution from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, indicating a growing interest in the return of cultural property.

According to AP, Hilmar Farid stated that the return of these artifacts not only fills gaps in the missing historical narrative, but also aims to return these historical objects to their original context and culture.

Unfortunately, however, the Netherlands is still unable to return the oldest Javanese human fossil found by Eugene Dubois in Trinil, Central Java, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). This is due to the research process, which takes a long time before the fossil can be included in the list of artifacts to be returned. The human skeleton, considered an important discovery in the journey of human evolution, is currently on display at the Naturalist Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Previously, the Dutch museum refused to return the fossils on the grounds that the Java man would not have been discovered without Dubois' initiative and that prehistoric objects are not considered part of the national heritage. Nevertheless, the restitution debate continues, raising ethical questions about the ownership and return of historical artifacts that have cultural and scientific value.

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