EJIL: The Podcast! Episode 13: Loot!

Written by
Surabhi Ranganathan and Megan Donaldson, European Journal of International Law
Jan. 17, 2022

This podcast, the second in the series, ‘Reckonings with Europe: Past and Present’ by Surabhi Ranganathan and Megan Donaldson, reflects on calls for return of cultural artefacts looted under European empire.

Experts estimate that over 90% of African cultural heritage is outside Africa, and often in the major world museums. This figure reflects the staggering scale of looting under empire (and even the Anglo-Indian word ‘loot’ testifies to the imperial dimension of this form of pillage). While calls for the return of cultural artefacts are today gathering force, responses have been mixed. Curatorial embrace of these calls in some cases is outmatched by defences of the role of Western museums as ‘universal‘ repositories in many others.

The hosts are joined by Evelien Campfens (Leiden University, former lawyer at the Dutch Restitutions Committee for Nazi looted art, and member of the Ethics Committee of the Dutch Museum Association); Chika Okeke-Agulu (Professor of African and African Diaspora Art at Princeton University); and Dan Hicks (Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University, Curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and author of The Brutish Museums. The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution) to reflect on the role of (international) law in response to these calls for return.

The episode begins with a discussion of how international law frames the act(s) of appropriation of cultural artefacts. Traditionally, these have been analysed through the lens of the intertemporal rule, which focuses on the legality of the initial taking, judged by the (predominantly European) law of the time. The guests discuss whether emerging new norms are displacing the intertemporal rule. They call into question the focus on the initial moment of taking, arguing that the possession and display of cultural artefacts by European institutions might represent ongoing violence. They also explore suggestions to reach beyond law, for new ethical foundations, as Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy have argued in a major report.

The episode then turns to the arguments used to resist calls for return, including that Western museums serve as ‘universal’ repositories. After the guests make short work of such arguments, the episode examines what the notion of return actually involves. The guests explain the legal forms that return might take, and the work that this requires of museum curators and other holders of cultural artefacts. They also reflect on what return might mean in contexts where objects have been irreparably torn out of their original matrices of meanings, or where the communities from which they were originally taken have been erased or scattered or subsumed within one or multiple postcolonial states.

Along the way, the guests remind us of the role that lawyers might play in shaping arguments for return, of the fundamental importance of amplifying and listening to the voices of those asking for returns, and of the dissatisfactions of a discourse in which notions of safeguarding objects by keeping them in Europe crowds out acknowledgement of the continuing violence of imperialism.


Audio file