Portugal studies returning cultural heritage to former colonies


The repatriation of cultural heritage from former colonies became a topic of discussion in Portugal after reverberating in other European countries. The country is preparing to carry out a survey of Portuguese museums, but has not yet made any promise that it will, in fact, return pieces that currently belong to the Portuguese collection.

What exists, for now, is just the public expression of interest in investigating the issue, expressed in statements by the Minister of Culture, Pedro Adão e Silva. “This is a debate that takes place in all countries, namely in European countries that were colonial powers, and Portugal is no exception. This is a discussion that should focus on concrete cases, and not just on abstract principles”, summarizes, in a note , the Culture folder.

Since the minister started talking about the subject, at the end of November, the subject has been dividing opinions in the country, as well as almost everything that involves the Portuguese colonial legacy. The far-right party Chega submitted a request for Adão e Silva to provide clarification to Parliament on the possibility of returning the works, but the request ended up being rejected.

In early 2020, the Socialist Party, which has governed the country since November 2015, helped to reject a proposal similar to the one being considered now. The “Program for the Decolonization of Culture” included the formation of a working group to carry out a national survey of the heritage brought from former Portuguese colonies and held by national museums and archives. The aim was to allow items to be “easily identified, claimed and returned to states and communities of origin”.

In addition to the political obstacles, the effort required to carry out a national scale inventory is also an obstacle. There are already, however, ongoing identification initiatives. This is the case of the project “Transmat — Transnational Materialities (1850-1930): Reconstituting Collections and Connecting Stories”, which has been studying the origin of pieces from the ethnographic collections of the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, in Lisbon, and the Museu Municipal Santos Rocha, in Figueira da Foz.

The multidisciplinary group makes an in-depth analysis of the artifacts, tracing in detail the roots and paths taken to reach the collections in Portugal. “We followed a methodology for reconstructing the itinerary. We collected data and historical sources that the museum has about it and followed clues. Usually they are the names of the donors. We try to understand who they are. Usually they were people linked to the former colonies, such as colonial administrators, military or missionaries”, explains Elisabete Pereira, project coordinator and researcher at the University of Évora.

Throughout the research, Transmat has already identified pieces with potentially problematic routes to Portugal. This means that they are artifacts likely obtained through violence and exploitation of local communities. This is the case of a pot from Brazil, attributed to the Kaingang indigenous people and probably obtained in what the colonizers called, euphemistically, a “pacification operation”.

In June 2021, ICOM-Portugal, the Portuguese commission of the International Council of Museums, opened an inquiry to identify heritage from outside Europe held by institutions in Portugal. The questionnaire was sent to public and private museums, in an effort by the institution to help promote debate on the topic. Participation, however, was low.

“Weak adherence may also reflect the lack of employees and resources in the institutions. There was a disinvestment in the institutions, which suffer from several shortcomings, even at the level of guards for the collections”, ponders Pereira, from Transmat.

In other European countries, such as France and Germany, the discussion –also always immersed in controversy– is more advanced. In 2018, at the behest of President Emmanuel Macron, Paris produced a report on African heritage in its museums. The document indicates that there are more than 90,000 pieces from the former colonies in French public collections, many of them the result of looting and looting.

The study’s conclusions were contested by experts and museum directors, and the dossier took a backseat. So far, despite the document and Macron’s statement that he intends to intensify the return of parts to the countries of origin, few objects have actually been returned. Among the notable exceptions are a saber, sent to Senegal, and 26 bronze pieces, repatriated to Benin.

Another country that has carried out an inventory on the origin of heritage in museums is Belgium, which has begun to return artifacts to the Democratic Republic of Congo, its former colony. In February, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo took a step considered highly symbolic, handing over to the Congolese authorities a list of more than 84,000 pieces in the European country’s collection. Belgian museums want a negotiation process to allow part of the pieces to be kept, but with the payment of a kind of compensatory rent to the Congolese. The negotiation remains ongoing.

You May Also Like

Recommended for you

Immediate Peak