The Austrian government aims to propose legislation governing the restitution of objects in national museums acquired in a colonial context by March 2024, the culture secretary, Andrea Mayer, told a press conference today.
A government-appointed advisory committee led by Jonathan Fine, the scientific director of the Weltmuseum in Vienna, called for a permanent, “intellectually and culturally diverse” evaluation board to submit recommendations on returns of objects acquired in the colonial era to the government. The government would then decide on the basis of its findings; returns should be dealt with on a “state-to-state basis,” the committee recommended in its report released today.
Mayer said Austria aims to introduce an “orderly, consistent and comprehensive” process for handling restitution claims. “The rulers of European countries long viewed large parts of the world as places where they could help themselves; they simply took artefacts and saw that as their natural right,” she said. “Calling out this injustice and following it up with serious debate and concrete actions is Austria’s responsibility too.”
Fine said there is currently no estimate for the number of items in Austrian national museums that could be eligible for restitution but that he believes “very many” of the 200,000 objects in the Weltmuseum’s collection were taken in a colonial context. The advisory commission defined objects eligible for return as those whose owners “did not wish to part with them at the time they were collected” – encompassing, for instance, those lost “under conditions of violence, looting, theft, coercion or by deceptive means.”
Austria only briefly engaged in colonialism in the 18th century, when the Habsburg Monarchy established colonies in the Nicobar Islands as well as parts of Mozambique and South East and East Asia. Its attempts to establish colonies in Africa in the 1850s were unsuccessful. But it profited from other nations’ colonial exploits. Austrian individuals and organisations acquired objects during armed conflicts and in scientific and political expeditions, and engaged in trade and Christian missions in other countries’ colonies.
“Colonial propaganda was reinforced, research into ‘race science’ intensified, and colonialist thinking and attitudes dominated public opinion,” the advisory committee said in its report. “As one of the successors to the Habsburg monarchy, the Republic of Austria has paid comparatively little attention to its predecessor’s colonial history.” Provenance research into Austrian colonial contexts “is still in its infancy,” the committee said.
The advisory committee also called for continued support for provenance research and permanent funds to support civil society initiatives aimed at promoting awareness of the legacy of colonialism.