Universiteit Leiden

nl en


Changing Approaches Towards Restitution and Return of Colonial Heritage: Tracing Experiences and Identifying Shared Decolonial Practices

Thursday 23 May 2024 - Friday 24 May 2024
Wereldmuseum and Leiden University

On 23-34 May 2024, the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies and the Research Group ‘Museums, Collections and Society’ will hold an interdisciplinary symposium on ‘Changing Approaches Towards Restitution and Return of Colonial Heritage’.

One of the shortcomings of existing approaches to restitution and return is that they remain largely centered on national/domestic perspectives, while paying limited attention to the broader transnational dimensions of restitution policies. The purpose of this conference is to look beyond individual country approaches/ethical policies to explore what comparative lessons can be learned from different contexts regarding the treatment of cultural objects and/or human remains. Our discussions will focus on a number of themes: de-colonial approaches towards ownership and ontologies of objects, fresh engagement with semantics and epistemic frames,  processes of re-connecting objects, experiences with digitization, and/or new forms of collaboration between museums and heritage communities.

More information of this symposium can be found here.

Draft programme


Day 1: Thursday 23 May

Venue: Wereldmuseum Leiden, Steenstraat 1B, 2312 BS Leiden

9.15 Coffee/Walk-in


9.30 - 9.45 Welcome and Introductions

- Welcome Prof. Wayne​​ Modest, Director of Content, Wereldmuseum, Leiden

- Introductions by Prof. Carsten Stahn and Prof Pieter ter Keurs

9:45 - 10.05: Dr. Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You (Chair, Restitution Committee Colonial Collections): The process of restitution – Setting the scene


Panel 1:

Comparative perspectives on restitution and return

10.10 – 12.10

Chair: Prof. Carsten Stahn

The opening panel will investigate the ‘turn to restitution and return’ from a transnational perspective and contrast approaches. It will set country/regional developments into a broader comparative perspective, in order to evaluate experiences, understand critiques and identify de-colonial practices.

- Prof. George Okello Abungu (Emeritus Director General of the National Museums of Kenya and Founding Professor of Heritage Studies at the University of Mauritius): Restitution and return of colonial heritage: Evolving Policies and practices on the African continent 

- Dr. Naomi Oosterman (Assistant Professor of Cultural Heritage, Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Camila Malig Jedlicki (Institute for Cultural Inquiry of Utrecht University & Erasmus University Rotterdam): Comparative perspectives on the restitution and return of cultural heritage in Latin America and Europe

- Prof. Lucas Lixinski (Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW Sydney): Restitution and return of colonial heritage to communities: Bright and dark sides  

- Prof. Elena Baylis (University of Pittsburgh School of Law): Dialogue in Restitution Processes – Lessons from the US Native American Graves Protection and Restoration Act  

12.10 - 12.45 Lunch Break


Panel 2:

Changing ethical and legal frontlines: Gaps and challenges


Chair: Prof. George Okello Abungu

In national policies or museum guidelines, restitution and return are often treated as ethical issues. This panel will discuss the complex interplay between law and ethics in restitution policies. It will highlight gaps and blind-spots in existing frames and seek to imagine new ways to confront challenges that have received lesser attention in public discourse and practice (e.g., intangible harms, due diligence duties in trade, role of private collections).

- Prof. Wouter Veraart (VU Amsterdam): The general and the legal or the particular and the ethical? Comparing two approaches to restitution in response to colonial injustice

- Dr. Evelien Campfens (University of Amsterdam): Cross-border claims to looted art at the intersection of public and private law: a case for a humanized notion of cultural property

- Dr. Jos van Beurden (VU Amsterdam), The Empty Showcase Syndrome - Colonial collections, restitution and the role of the art trade and private collectors

- Dr. Sophie Starrenburg (Leiden University): Tackling intangible harms resulting from colonial ‘translocations’

14.45-15.00 Coffee Break


Panel 3:

Restitution and the digital Space: Evolving politics and practices   


Chair: Prof. Lucas Lixinski

The third panel will focus on the opportunities and challenges of the digital space. It will inter alia discuss the role of visual memory in restitution, the framing of object histories through digitization, and its impact for provenance research, access to objects, restitution of knowledge and object mobility.

- Dr. Diana M. Natermann (Hamburg University), Colonial Photographs: From Cultural Genocide to Digital Restitution?

- Murtaza Mohiqi (Assistant Professor Law, University of South-Eastern Norway) and Gagandeep Kaur (Associate Professor, School of Law, UPES Dehradun): From Bytes to Rights: Human Rights and Digital Innovation in Heritage Repatriation

- Dr. Marie-Sophie de Clippele (Assistant Professor in Law at University Saint-Louis Brussels) and Bérengère Piret (Assistant Professor of History at UC Louvain): Sharing data between institutions, a step-up or a cover-up for restitution? Boundaries and Challenges in ‘digital restitution’

- Wiebe Reints (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies): Access and Transparency: A transnational comparison of digital platforms comprising colonial collections


Day 2: Friday 24 April

Morning session, Venue: Wereldmuseum Leiden, Steenstraat 1B, 2312 BS Leiden


9.30 – 10.00 Prof. Dr. Peju Layiwola, Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Stanley Museum of Art, University of Iowa, USA: Restitution and Intergenerational Memory: Benin Art


Panel 4:  

Object identities, epistemic pluralism and experiences with return processes


Chair: Nanette Snoep, Director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne

The fourth panel will explore approaches towards the identities of objects, the encounter of different epistemologies and experiences with return processes, including restitutions to Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the dynamics surrounding the return of Benin bronzes.   

- Prof. Pieter ter Keurs, Leiden University, Agency, ownership and object transformation in colonial restitutions 

- Dr. Lucas da Costa Maciel, Repatriation Commission, Kiñelmapu Kowaye, Chile, Memorial University of Newfoundland: Ownership, spiritual kinship, and repatriation. The Mapuche Repatriation Commission’s experience and the politics of spirits

- Dr. Alicia Schrikker, Senior University Lecturer and Director of Research at the Leiden University Institute for History, Can you return a gift? Towards a new understanding of historical patterns and processes of colonial gift-exchange

- Dr. Afolasade A. Adewumi, Reader in the Department of Jurisprudence and International Law, University of Ibadan, Perceptions and the law on ownership of heritage objects: A case study of the Benin Bronzes

12.15-14.00 Lunch break


Afternoon session, Venue: Leiden University, Zaal P.J. Vethgebouw, Nonnensteeg 1-3, 2311 VJ Leiden

Panel 5:

Changing museum practices and re-thinking museums and collections


Chair: Prof. Pieter ter Keurs

The last panel will reflect on the transformation of the role of museums through restitution and return. It will discuss to what return provides a methodology to re-think semantics, knowledge systems, display practices and collaborative frameworks, as well as the meaning of the museum.

- Nanette Snoep, Director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne, Decolonizing Museum Work    

- Dr. Amber Aranui (Curator of Matauranga Māori at Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, NZ) and Dr Mark A Hall (Perth Museum, Culture Perth & Kinross, Perth, Scotland): Revisiting the past, sharing the future: co-curating now between Perth (Scotland) and Aotearoa

- Madelon Dewitte (Royal Museum for Central Africa & Lambrecht Law Office, Brussels) and Dr. Marie-Sophie de Clippele (Assistant Professor in Law at University Saint-Louis Brussels): Institutional collaborations parallel to a legal framework: PROCHE at the Africa Museum

15.45-16.00 Coffee break


Closing Discussion:

Heritage Justice and Relational Ethics: Where to move from here?


- Convenor: Prof. Carsten Stahn, Leiden University


  • Jacquetta “Jackie” Swift (Comanche/Ft. Sill Apache), Repatriation Manager,  Smithsonian,  National Museum of the American Indian
  • Nanette Snoep, Director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne
  • Amy Shakespeare, Founder of Routes to Return, University of Exeter and Bath Spa University
  • Prof. Lucas Lixinski (Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW Sydney)

To all those interested in joining online, we encourage you to join us via Zoom by clicking here. 


Online participation is available via Zoom link above. Interested in joining in-person? Please register via the button below.

Register for this event
This website uses cookies.