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Contested Collections: Grappling With History and Forging Pathways for Repatriation

A virtual symposium to examine the complicated histories of cultural heritage collections, the expropriation of artifacts through colonialism and looting, the ethics of ownership and restitution, and decolonization in libraries, archives, and museums.

In the News

This is a sampling of news articles related to repatriation that have been published in the last 2.5 years.

"Mohegan Tribe saw repatriation from Dartmouth College. Why are the Occom papers important?," Norwich Bulletin, 4/2022

"Smithsonian to give back its collection of Benin bronzes," Washington Post, 3/2022

"Germany, Austria Repatriate Dozens of Human Skulls to Hawaii," Smithsonian Magazine, 2/2022

"Mexican activists hack Viennese museum’s audioguide in protest over its ownership of the Montezuma headdress," The Art Newspaper, 2/2022

"Why the Smithsonian is changing its approach to collecting, starting with the removal of looted Benin treasures," Washington Post, 1/2022

"Thailand's art repatriation and the power of netizens," Asia Media Centre, 12/2021

"Looted 16th-century Manuscripts Are Returned to Mexico’s National Archive," Hyperallergic, 10/2021

"‘Unprecedented’ restitution: US returns antiquities to Iraq." Al-Jazeera, 7/2021

"Austrian Museum Won't Loan Famed Headdress to Mexico," ARTnews, 8/2021

"The Colonized World Wants Its Artifacts Back," Vice, 12/2020

New Digital Project Details 150 Belgian Libraries Looted by the Nazis, Smithsonian Magazine, 12/2020

"A new approach to repatriation: The two museums that are nurturing relationships with communities of origin," Museums Journal, 11/2020

"Australian Government Pledges Millions Towards Repatriation of Indigenous Artifacts," ARTnews, 11/2020

"Return of Mohegan Elder's Diaries to Help Revitalize Language," Cornell Chronicle, 11/2020

"The Hunt for Nazi Loot Still Sitting on Shelves," New York Times, 1/2019

"The Passamaquoddy Reclaim Their Culture Through Digital Repatriation," New Yorker, 1/2019


If you are unfamiliar with the issues related to repatriation, this video serves as an introduction to the debate about the ethics of museum collections.


Are museum collections ethical? How did these institutions end up with their vast array of artifacts and remains from every corner of the globe? . . .  Danielle [Bainbridge] examines this complicated debate [in this episode of PBS' Origin of Everything] and looks closely at the cases of Saartjie Baartman and Chang and Eng Bunker. What do you think? Should objects be repatriated, left on display, or something in between?"

Select Works by Speakers

Amineddoleh, Leila. “Museums Have a Responsibility to Protect Cultural Heritage.” Aedon (Bologna) 2 (aprile-luglio 2013) (2013): 31–41. Web.

 Amineddoleh, Leila A. “The Legal Tools Used before and During Conflict to Avoid Destruction of Cultural Heritage.” Future anterior 14.1 (2017): 37–48. Web.

Amineddoleh, Leila A. “Cultural Heritage Vandalism and Looting: The Role of Terrorist Organizations, Public Institutions and Private Collectors.” Santander Art and Culture Law Review 1.2 (2015): 27–62. Print.

Bušek, M.: ‘Identifying Owners of Books Held by the Jewish Museum in Prague’ in Vitalizing Memory: International Perspectives on Provenance Research. Washington 2005

Bušek, M.: "Whose are they and where did they come from?" Methods of identifying the original owners of books held by the Jewish Museum in Prague in Terezín Declaration – Ten Years Later. 7th international conference: the documentation, identification, and restitution of the cultural assets of WWII victims: proceedings of an international academic conference held in Prague on 18–19 June 2019. Prague 2019

Ezeluomba (2019) The Development of the Exhibition of African Art in American Art Museums: Strategy for Engaging
Recent Repatriation Debate about the Cultural Property of Africa. In Museum Innovation: Building More Equitable, Relevant and Impactful Museums. Eds. Robert R. Janes and Haitham Eid. Rutledge. Forthcoming.

Ndubuisi, E. (2017) The Legitimacy of Kingship: Benin Art and Political Intrigues from the 18th Century. Manwa Katha Journal of Adivasi and Folklore Studies. Vol 4. 1. Pp. 4-17

Teeter, Wendy Giddens, Desiree Martinez, and Dorothy Lippert. “Creating a New Future: Redeveloping the Tribal-Museum Relationship in the Time of NAGPRA.” International journal of cultural property 28.2 (2021): 201–209. Web.

Underhill, Karen J. “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.” RBM : a journal of rare books, manuscripts, and cultural heritage 7.2 (2006): 134–145. Web.

Dr. Lisa Moses Leff, Director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Professor of History at American University, examines the organized Jewish efforts to seek restitution for the art, books, religious objects, and other cultural treasures that had been looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust..

In this extract from the 'Empire State of Mind’ episode of Renegade Inc, Alice Proctor discusses her Uncomfortable Art Tours.

Carrying Our Ancestors Home's team asked tribal experts in cultural heritage and repatriation what they think other tribal members should understand about repatriation, and how any tribal member can get involved in protecting cultural sites and ancestors.

In 2004, Cornell acquired the diaries of Fidelia Flying Bird Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot language. The diaries were purchased as part of the Huntington Free Library's Native American Collection. [In November 2020] Cornell returned her papers to her descendants.

The importance of provenance research in the resolution of art disputes cannot be overstated. Provenance discoveries may provide the basis for an ownership and restitution claim, and provenance information can offer evidence to validate the authenticity or attribution of a work of art. Moreover, these reports are vital in appraising the monetary value of art objects, a central concern in many legal disputes. Learn more about how provenance research impacts art law. The event was recorded at The Frick Collection, February 18, 2020

Damien Webb, Manager of Indigenous Engagement at the State Library of NSW, talks about Indigenous cultural and intellectual property (ICIP) from a libraries perspective, and how ICIP applies to library collection items. Learn more about the ATSILIRN Protocols and how they can be applied when working with Indigenous collections:

Te Moana is an experimental documentary film made in a collaboration between Rangiwaho Marae and Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll about the 'Cooks New Clothes' research project. Learn more:

Carrying Our Ancestors Home

Carrying Our Ancestors Home, a project founded by UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center and the Fowler Museum under the directorship of Dr. Mishuana Goeman and Dr. Wendy Teeter, seeks to illuminate previously unengaged practices and infrastructure behind the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and how Native people regard various aspects of the law, and the work they do to enact and enforce it. To achieve this goal, they have collaborated with native cultural practitioners, tribal members, professionals, and academics in the Southern California area to create a digital educational resource webpage about the repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural items. 

Jewish Museum in Prague

Established in 1906, the Jewish Museum in Prague is a museum documenting Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic. Its collection of Judaica is one of the largest in the world, and includes about 40,000 objects, 130,000 books, and an expansive archive of histories from the Czech Jewish community.

Object Repatriation and Knowledge Co-production for Indonesia's Cultural Artefacts

Written by Panggah Ardiyansyah, this blog post explores the benefits and limitations of knowledge production resulting from the repatriation of objects to Indonesia, drawing from case studies such as the defunct Museum Nusantara in Delft to the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta and the British Library's digitization of Yogyakarta manuscripts. Ardivansyah aims "to show that the repatriation process can be used as an opportunity to decentre the construction of knowledge inspired by or even embodied by the returned objects themselves," while underscoring the importance of physically transferring objects to and preserving ownership by Indonesian communities.

Protocols for Native American Archives

The Protocols for Native American Archives were created in April 2006 by a group of nineteen Native American and non-Native American archivists, librarians, museum curators, historians, and anthropologists gathered at Northern Arizona University Cline Library in Flagstaff, Arizona. The participants included representatives from fifteen Native American, First Nation, and Aboriginal communities. This website contains the best professional practices for culturally responsive care and use of American Indian archival material held by non-tribal libraries and archives as well as Native American communities. 

Indigenous Engagement Branch at the State Library of NSW

The Indigenous Engagement Branch at the State Library of New South Wales works with Indigenous communities across NSW concerning the preservation and management of Indigenous documentary heritage resources, and collaborates proactively with Indigenous people and communities regarding access to the collection. The site also contains protocols and statements of best practice to provide guidance for the Library’s work in this priority area. 

Culturally Safe Libraries: Working with Indigenous Collections

The National and State Libraries Australasia (NSLA) established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culturally Safe Libraries Program in 2018 to ensure that their libraries are culturally safe spaces in which staff working with Indigenous collections are well informed about content and access protocols, and about the history and cultural heritage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples those collections relate to. NSLA libraries are committed to providing cultural competency and role specific training for all staff, which is based on protocols developed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library and Information Resource Network – known as the ATISILIRN Protocols. 

Restitution and Institutional Change

The Restitution and Institutional Change project, led by Professor Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, seeks to analyze how British national museums have obtained, curated, and displayed non-Western objects and intellectual property, with a focus on their repatriation. The project also aims to expose "the systemic racism and intolerance of British national museums and developed strategies for exhibiting Empire, including scientific facts and their materialisation in art, the difference between Institutional critique and infrastructural activism, transparency, movement, performance and experimentation, and the mobilisation of shame and embarrassment about Empire."

Related Books

Additional Resources

Looted Art

The Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property (1933-1945) is a "repository of information on Nazi looting and contemporary efforts to research and resolve all outstanding issues. It is a charitable body operating under the auspices of the European Association for Jewish Studies, the leading umbrella organisation for academic Jewish studies in Europe." This website was created in partnership with the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which is a "non-profit, expert, representative body in Europe that negotiates policies and procedures, assists families to identify and recover looted cultural property, and provides guidance and information to individuals, institutions and governments worldwide."

Looted Cultural Assets

Looted Cultural Assets was founded in 2016 and consists of a network of libraries in Germany whose goal is to investigate expropriations during the Nazi era as well as commemorate and reconcile with victims of the Nazi regime. It includes a focus on provenance research, in which libraries cooperate to find, investigate, and return books seized books to their rightful owners and heirs, both individuals and organizations, with an emphasis on books belonging to Jews.

Oxford's Procedures for claims for the Return of Cultural Objects

Oxford's Procedures for dealing with claims for the Return of Cultural Objects from the Oxford University Museums were drafted in partnership with the following museums: GLAM Collections Group, GLAM Board, University Legal Services and Farrer’s & Co. The document covers the collections stewarded by these four University museums and the Bodleian Libraries where legal title is vested in the University of Oxford. 

Collections Trust Restitution and Repatriation 

Collections Trust Restitution and Repatriation is a collection of resources shared by different heritage organizations, including detailed procedures regarding repatriation, deaccessioning, claims for the return of cultural objects, researching the validity of a claim, recording a claim, processing a claim, and a code of ethics for the development of museum collections.

Barker, Alex W. “Museums and Restitution: New Practices, New Approaches (Tythacott and Arvanitis, Eds.).” Museum anthropology review 9.1-2 (2015): 117–121. Web.

Fiskesjö, Magnus. “Global Repatriation and ‘Universal’ Museums.” Anthropology news 51.3 (2010): 10–12. Web.

Lambert-Pennington, Katherine. “What Remains? Reconciling Repatriation, Aboriginal Culture, Representation and the Past.” Oceania 77.3 (2007): 313–336. Web.

 Nilsson Stutz. “Claims to the Past. A Critical View of the Arguments Driving Repatriation of Cultural Heritage and Their Role in Contemporary Identity Politics.” Journal of intervention and statebuilding 7.2 (2013): 1–26. Web.

Roehrenbeck, Carol A. “Repatriation of Cultural Property : Who Owns the Past? An Introduction to Approaches and to Selected Statutory Instruments.” International journal of legal information 38.2 (2010): 185–200. Web.

Thebele, Winani. “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, by Dan Hicks: London: Pluto Press, 2020. 368 Pp.; 20 B/w Ills. $27.” The Art bulletin (New York, N.Y.) 104.1 (2022): 185–188. Web.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1.1 (2012): 1-40. Web.

Wood, Paul. “Display, Restitution and World Art History: The Case of the ‘Benin Bronzes.’” Visual culture in Britain 13.1 (2012): 115–137. Web.

Yu, Peter K. “Traditional Knowledge, Intellectual Property, and Indigenous Culture: An Introduction.” New Europe law review 11.2 (2003): 239-245. Print.

Anders Rydell discussed his book, the story of the systematic pillaging of Europe's libraries by Nazis during World War II, and the small team of heroic librarians now working to return the stolen books to their rightful owners. Through extensive new research, Rydell reveals the untold story of how the Nazis began to compile libraries of their own that were used to wage an intellectual war on their enemies. In this secret war, the libraries of Jews, communists, liberal politicians, LGBT activists, Catholics, Freemasons and other opposition groups were appropriated for Nazi research and used as an intellectual weapon against their owners.

To Nigerians, the Benin Bronzes are more than just sublime sculptures and carvings, they are spiritual diaries that tell the story of an ancient kingdom. Looted by the British, the Bronzes have become highly-charged symbols in the debate around the legacy of colonial violence. Hundreds are still held by the British Museum. Nigeria says it's been asking for them back for decades.


The Crown of Emperor Moctezuma, assassinated by Hernán Cortés, was stolen 500 years ago during the colonization invasion and today is exhibited in the Vienna Ethnographic Museum "Welt." For the Austrians, it is an exotic object, but for the Mexicans and the descendants of the Aztecs, it means much more. It is a spiritual symbol that must return home.

The curator at Vienna's Weltmuseum where a feather headdress said to have been worn by Aztec Emperor Moctezuma is displayed says that the piece "cannot be moved" as it is "too fragile" after Mexico's president tasked his wife with the mission of persuading Austria to return the pre-Hispanic relic."