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The Dutch are returning looted artifacts to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Does it matter?

Cultural artifacts are handed back to Indonesia during a ceremony in Leiden, Netherlands, Monday, July 10, 2023. The Netherlands and Indonesia on Monday have hailed the return of hundreds of cultural artifacts taken, sometimes by force, during colonial times as a major step forward in restitution efforts worldwide.
Aleksandar Furtula
/
AP
Cultural artifacts are handed back to Indonesia during a ceremony in Leiden, Netherlands, Monday, July 10, 2023. The Netherlands and Indonesia on Monday have hailed the return of hundreds of cultural artifacts taken, sometimes by force, during colonial times as a major step forward in restitution efforts worldwide.

MANILA, Philippines — Hundreds of priceless, cultural artifacts looted during the Dutch colonization of Indonesia and Sri Lanka are finally on their way home.

In a ceremony Monday at the Museum Volkenkunde in Dutch city of Leiden, 478 cultural objects were handed over to representatives from their home countries hundreds of years after they were taken — sometimes by force.

The items to be sent back to Indonesia include, among others, ancient temple carvings from Java, a traditional Balinese dagger, and jewels from Lombok, Indonesia, taken by Dutch troops following the 1894 massacre of hundreds of local residents on the island.

"We are really delighted. This is a very historic moment for both us, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. And the relationship between the two," said Hilmar Farid, Indonesia's Ministry of Culture director general of cultural heritage, reported the AP. "But I think what we have achieved so far is also a very significant contribution to the global debate about returning of colonial objects."

Added Dewi van de Weerd, the Dutch ambassador for international cooperation over Twitter: "What has been taken, will have to go back, unconditionally."

The artifacts are the first to be returned since the Dutch set up a committee in 2022 to field requests from countries wanting their artifacts returned. However, the Netherlands and Indonesia have had an agreement since 1975 on the restitution of cultural heritage taken during the Dutch colonial period.

"We consider these objects as our missing items in our historical narrative and of course they play different roles symbolically, culturally," Farid said, noting that their return means Indonesia can "reintegrate them into their cultural contexts. And that is, of course, of symbolic importance to us."

In this photo provided by Rijksmuseum on Thursday, July 6, 2023, the of the Cannon of Kandy which originated from Sri Lanka is photographed.
/ AP
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AP
In this photo provided by Rijksmuseum on Thursday, July 6, 2023, the of the Cannon of Kandy which originated from Sri Lanka is photographed.

Still, while the return of the cultural objects is "great news," just sending them back is not enough, Citra Sasmita, an Indonesian visual artists who resides on Bali, said.

"It's about the mentality, of course," Sasmita told NPR, recounting the first time she went to the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam and became quite shocked and sad at the depictions of her people. "Their white supremacy mentality portrayed Indonesians as uncivilized people. They glorified their cannon... for me, it's important also to counter the cannon."

Even though the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonize Indonesia, the Southeast Asian archipelago nation of more than 18,000 islands was colonized by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s. Indonesia passed on to Dutch government control in 1796 and did not achieve independence until 1945 — nearly 350 years later.

Sasmita said now Indonesia has a responsibility to maintain these returned artifacts so that all Indonesians can learn from them. This means building better museum infrastructure and learning how to better preserve antique objects.

"We need to be more careful with these objects," she said.

The return of the artifacts to Indonesia and Sri Lanka is the latest in a move by Western Powers to repatriate items they plundered during colonial times. Just this year, a Berlin museum announced it would return hundreds of human skulls to East Africa, one of their former colonies, and several artifacts were repatriated to Cambodia from the United States.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cultural artifacts are handed back to Indonesia during a ceremony in Leiden, Netherlands, Monday, July 10, 2023.
Aleksandar Furtula / AP
/
AP
Cultural artifacts are handed back to Indonesia during a ceremony in Leiden, Netherlands, Monday, July 10, 2023.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.