Have you visited Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden? If you have, you might see a grand statue of the Hindu god Ganesha. Weighing some 2.5 tons, this unique stone sculpture is one of the best preserved artistic representations from the 13th-century Hindu period in East Java, which became part of the Dutch East Indies, and then Indonesia. At the museum, you learn that the statue came from the Singasari temple. You might also find out that the statue was “taken from the temple in 1804 by the Dutch Governor of East Java, Nicolaus Engelhard” and that the statue was “collected in 1804; subsequently transferred to the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, in 1841; moved to the National Museum of Ethnology in 1903.” Often, we see such descriptions of statues in Dutch museums that came from the former colonies: “taken,” “collected,” “moved.” But what you might not see, in that nicely lit room in the Volkenkunde, is the space that the Ganesha statue left behind. When you take an object, you take it from somewhere. And that somewhere, in this case Singasari, becomes empty—void of content, and of context. That dark emptiness, represents loss. Or perhaps something worse than loss. It represents not knowing: not knowing what you lost, even not knowing what you had in the first place. That loss is the deep impact of colonialism across the world, including in the former East Indies. It is well known that the Dutch—like the British, the French, and other former colonizing powers— “took” many things from their colonies. Spices and coffee, certainly. But also, art and history. Unfortunately, unlike spices or coffee, you cannot simply recreate lost art or lost history. When the Dutch took statues, inscriptions, letters, and documents, they not only took that knowledge—they also took away access to that knowledge. While people in the Netherlands can continue appreciating the art of Singasari, a child in Indonesia would likely never see that statue, and only see the dark empty space left behind.
Controversial movements of objects during the colonial period led us to the debate on “decolonizing the museum” today, which involves not just curators and academics but activists and even regular museum visitors. Decolonizing the museum starts with asking questions like what does it mean when a piece of knowledge is “taken,” “collected,” or “moved”? How should museums, curators, even the average visitor confront and correct colonial infractions? And what does it mean for the place and people the objects left behind? Unsurprisingly, there is no clear answer. The most prominent (and controversial) call is to “repatriate” objects, i.e. return them to their place of origin, like the French government agreed to do with Benin artworks in November 2018. But others like former British Museum director Neil MacGregor defend the British Museum’s insistence on keeping the Parthenon marbles and other colonial artifacts because keeping them in Western museums serves an important educational and preservation purpose. Moreover, the issue is becoming more complicated. What happens when past colonial actions collide with present capitalism, like when the British Museum’s exhibition of Assyrian treasures sponsored by petroleum company BP was protested by activists? Or when the Pitt-Rivers Museum used refugees as tour guides—is that progress or just further exploitation? There is also the argument that since many Western ethnographic or “encyclopedic” museums was founded on—and can only exist because of—colonization, the very concept of a museum itself must be deconstructed. These issues may not be written on exhibition labels, but the next time you visit the museum, perhaps now you can start seeing them.