From what is left to what is lost: Social provenance research to challenge exclusion in restitution | Amsterdam University Press Journals Online


A central assumption in the political process of restitution of looted properties and cultural objects is that their return helps societies to redeem histories of injustice and dispossession. In this article, we ask which objects address whose histories, and how processes of restitution are influenced by the presence and absence of objects and collections. Looting leads to more than material loss. While most attention nowadays goes to objects classified as ‘ethnographic’, historic, and cultural artefacts, loss in a colonial context also included the remains of ancestors, manuscripts, archives, commercial wares, mineralogical samples, as well as land and livelihoods. The Holocaust almost entirely wiped out the rich abundance and variegated landscape of Jewish life in Europe along with its diverse material cultures. If we want to address these larger histories of loss, we should shift our focus from what is left in present-day museum collections to what was lost. The phrase ‘what was lost’ is productive in three ways. Firstly, by focusing on ‘what was lost’ we can address the impact of loss beyond the material, also creating space for the significance of objects for fundamental human values. Secondly, the phrase necessarily provokes the question ‘what’s lost for whom’, thereby invoking a social provenance research approach. Finally, by asking ‘what was lost’ we can also address the experience and feelings of loss – expressed through objects and restitution claims – and how they evolved over time.


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