The Restitution of Cultural Assets and Human Remains from Ethnographic Museums

Narratives of the Past and the (Re)construction of Museum Standards and Policies

French Institute Seminars in Humanities (FISH)
23 September 2014

14:00 – IFAS Conference Room, 62 Juta Street, Braamfontein


Damiana Otoiu
University of Bucharest & Université de Bruxelles

There is today an increase in the number of requests and claims against museums for the return of cultural assets or human remains. Dealing with such requests and with competing “rights talk” (Sally Engle Merry, 2003) raises not only a series of historical, moral and political questionings, but also the need for co-ordinating very heterogeneous and incoherent legislative frameworks. Moreover, these peculiar restitution cases and the regulation of property rights over cultural assets are becoming complex processes in which different actors, norms and types of legitimacy are brought together and confronted with one another.

Starting mainly from several restitution claims concerning cultural assets or human remains, which have been addressed to Quai Branly Museum in Paris, the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris, and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium), this paper looks into the actors of the process of (re)construction of museum standards and policies. Moreover, the project will analyse the process of norm “framing” (Rodger Payne, 2001): How these actors engage with the “great meta-narratives” of the past? And which main themes are used in justifying the “necessity for restitution”, the political-historical arguments in particular? Restitution must be seen here as being synonymous with the recognition of the sovereignty of former colonies, or with a reparation for the wrongs of the past).


Damiana Otoiu is a political anthropologist whose research questions the recent metamorphoses of French and Belgian post-colonial ethnographic museums, and the relationship between these museums and the “source” communities of the objects exposed. She lectures Political and Urban Anthropology at the Department of Political Science of the University of Bucharest, and is a Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Political Life (CEVIPOL) at the Free University of Brussels.