Addressing Violence in and through Objects: workshop reflections about ‘Cultural Genocide’
— by Adieyatna Fajri, Klaas Stutje, Kelly Breemen, Martijn Eickhoff
How to discuss colonial destruction, oppression and erasure of cultural heritage, through still surviving objects and collections in European heritage institutions? What potential do objects from colonial contexts contain to help us better understand the colonial past and address its ongoing legacies? These and other questions were addressed on Friday 31 March in a Pressing Matter workshop about Cultural Genocide.
On Friday 31 March, twenty-five scholars from various countries, academic disciplines and cultural backgrounds came together to reflect on the concept of Cultural Genocide. The workshop was organized by Adieyatna Fajri MA (PhD candidate Pressing Matter and NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies), dr. Kelly Breemen (Utrecht University), and dr. Klaas Stutje (NIOD) as part of the Pressing Matter workpackage 4a.
During the day, the concept Cultural Genocide was considered from three angles: as a recurring historical phenomenon, as a legal term that was proposed but never codified, and as a theory of violence. Coined in 1944 by Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his seminal work Axis rule in Occupied Europe, the concept has raised considerable debate and controversy from the outset, but remains in use to this day. It was taken up, for instance, to characterize the ongoing attacks on cultural heritage during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since February 2022, the destruction of cultural heritage sites significant to Aboriginal peoples in Australia in 2020, the residential school system in Canada after a report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, and the demolition of cultural heritage in Timbuktu in 2012. However, the concept gains less attention in relation to the presence and conspicuous absence of objects/ancestors in colonial museum collections, while it may have potential as vocabulary to discuss loss, erasure, destruction and silence alongside and within processes of preservation, creation and collection.
Contributions to the workshop
After a few words of welcome by dr. Klaas Stutje (NIOD), who reflected on the history of the venue – the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam – in relation to the themes of the day, prof. Erik Ringmar (Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul) was invited to provide a keynote lecture. In his talk entitled ‘Cultural Appropriation: Museum Displays in an Age of Post-Colonial Guilt’ Ringmar elaborated on the role of Western museums and the European aesthetic perception of Art and The Sublime, which made acts of Barbarism in Asia and Africa possible. Focusing, among other examples, on the conquering, looting and burning of the Yuanmingyuan palace in Beijing in 1860 Ringmar introduced a few new notions with regards to objects, in what they ‘afford’ people to do, and in how they are ‘props’ in Chinese, colonial and European social ‘performances’. Ringmar ended his talk addressing debates around cultural appropriation and restitution. He argued that objects, as ‘props’, afford us to do much more than to display them in a Western style museum.
In subsequent panel presentations, a number of participants focused on the history of the concept of Cultural Genocide and conceptual implications of the term, while others focused on the history and future of specific heritage and objects with a violent past.
One of the participants who fleshed out the term Cultural Genocide was dr. Kelly Breemen (Utrecht University). She used her talk to map out the legal history of the concept of Cultural Genocide. The legal definition of Genocide, of which Cultural Genocide had been an integral part in the original conception of Raphael Lemkin, changed a number of times in the discussions in 1947 and 1948 to come to a Genocide Convention. These discussions and the later adoption of the convention coincided with the Cold War and intense debates over decolonization. Breemen argued that ‘genocide’ as a legal term was designed and shaped by its creators (often still colonizing powers) to avoid criminalization of their own behavior. Cultural Genocide as such disappeared from the Genocide Convention, even though some sub-articles allude to the destruction and repression of culture. In the rest of her talk, Breemen made a case for recognizing the significance of the concept of cultural genocide, its existence and value as such and, importantly, as an important analytical perspective. She explored various ‘connecting themes’ to form an analytical tool or ‘lens’ of cultural genocide for assessing attacks or violence against cultural heritage in a broad sense, including (lasting) impacts.
Dr. Thijs Bouwknegt (NIOD) also stressed the global colonial context in which the legal definition of Genocide was determined. He broadened the temporal focus and introduced preceding terms to characterize extreme violence (‘Crimes against Humanity’, ‘War Crimes’, ‘Vandalism’, and ‘Ethnocide’), and more recent conceptual and legal interventions, such ‘Apartheid’ and ‘Ethnic cleansing’. He encouraged the audience to consider other concepts that are perhaps more useful than Cultural Genocide, which has no definition under international law, or even experiment with new terms such as ‘Culture-cide’, or to reconsider ‘Crimes against History’. Each of these terms has its own demarcations, implications, strengths and weaknesses. They force you to think about issues such as the importance of intent in violence, or the necessity of a formal context of violence (a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population, a formal war, etc.). Bouwknegt also urged us to make a conceptual distinction between processes of social engineering and modernity that can have a huge social and cultural impact, and processes of violence.
Floris Kunert MA (NIOD) focused on another dimension of Lemkin’s thinking about Cultural Genocide that may be of use for our discussions about reconciliation and Transitional Justice through objects, namely ‘time’. Lemkin argued for a swift and irreversible process of restitution or replacement of objects and collections, on the one hand to heal as quickly as possible the wounds of war and to not disrupt economic life, and on the other hand to leave a lasting impression on the family circle of the looter. Kunert considered Lemkin’s conception of time, restitution and justice, to remind us of the temporality of violence and justice and the chronopolitics of restitution in the contemporary ways of dealing with objects and restitution.
Focusing on Museum Collections and Objects
Other participants departed from objects, collections and heritage itself. Discussing museum displays and narratives in a number of Indonesian museums, Sektiadi MA (Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta) traced how the imprint of colonialism is still visible in Indonesian museums and their collections. Curators who want to decolonize narratives in permanent exhibitions, or change tight nationalist state narratives about the Indonesian nation, lack ‘masterpieces’ that are presently held in Dutch museums. Will the repatriation of objects to Indonesia speed up the decolonization process, Sektiadi asked.
The potency of objects, or ‘affordance’ to use Ringmar’s term, was also demonstrated by dr. Eeva-Kristiina Nylander (University of Oulu, Finland) in her talk, entitled ‘Repatriation and rematriation as examples of decolonial and indigenisation practices’. She described the ‘repatriation’ of a traditional women’s headdress, a Ládjogahpir, from the National Museum of Finland to the Sámi community, and the subsequent ‘rematriation’ project that followed, in which Sámi women collectively gathered and revitalized knowledge about the object. She held that although original meanings may have been lost, because so much was taken away, new meanings could still be found. These new meanings, she argued, are equally important as original meanings.
In a different way, prof. Marieke Bloembergen (KITLV and Leiden University) also described a process of signification and knowledge formation through objects, by focusing on the long history of cultural mobilization of Hindu-Buddhist stone sculptures from Indonesia. In the twentieth century they became part of a narrative about Asian Art and Greater India. In this process, which Bloembergen characterizes as a form of epistemic violence, discourses about ‘healing’, ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ mirror processes of cultural destruction, appropriation and isolation.
Reflecting on the demolition of the early nineteenth century royal palace of Banten in Indonesia by the Dutch colonial government, Adieyatna Fajri (NIOD and University of Groningen) addressed the challenge to apply the concept of Cultural Genocide to historic events, particularly in times and regions where the concept of culture was understood differently than today. In Lemkin’s formulation, Cultural Genocide presupposes the existence of a ‘cultural identity’. However, for the Bantenese case it is still an open question whether or not the Dutch colonial government aimed to destroy the cultural identity. As a matter of fact, the Dutch Governor General Herman Willem Daendels clearly instructed to leave the great mosque and the royal graves of Banten untouched and let the people pray there. Moreover, there was a gap between what the Dutch and the Bantenese local people deemed as culture. While the Dutch attempted to distinguish politics and religion, the Bantenese treated politics and religion as a unity.
Dr. Diana Miryong Natermann (University of Hamburg) focused on a separate category of objects, namely photographic collections such as the collection of the Macklenburg Expedition to Western Africa in 1910/11 that is currently held by MARKK museum in Hamburg. Her talk was not only about what the photographs display, but also about what they signify as tangible objects of colonial documentation, classification and knowledge creation. The collection makes very visible that colonial objects can continue to inflict violence, on those who are portrayed and those who get to see them. How to deal with this collection? How do we work in the interests of those who are portrayed? What are the implications of digitization? Who should have access? How to un-mute those involved? In relation to the latter, she also addressed examples of exhibitions, curating and projects where agency and participation abilities have changed.
Prof. Uğur Ümit Üngör (NIOD and University of Amsterdam) ended the day with a number of closing remarks and observations. He underlined the fact that Cultural Genocide is a useful concept but with clear conceptual demarcations. At the same time it is a contested concept, not only in its legal design, but for instance also because it is politicized and mobilized by certain groups, and because it is unclear whether we are talking about processes of direct violence or detrimental processes of ‘development’, modernization and progress. This is for instance the case with the disappearance of languages. Finally, Üngör emphasized the importance of understanding the motives of perpetrators, who – regardless of what you may think of it – often express a clear creative imagination. This was true for colonial collectors, as much as for ISIS warriors who demolished the temples of Palmyra.
Common themes and general observations
The contributions were very diverse in focus and nature, but taken together they allow for a number of observations, conclusions and suggestions of ways forward.
The presentations of Eeva-Kristiina Nylander and Sektiadi, for instance, reminded us that the histories of colonialism and violent acquisition are not self-evidently the most dominant aspects of the new narrative after restitution, and that a deconstruction of nationalist narratives and male perspectives are also part of the ‘re-indigenization’ of knowledge. During the discussion, Marieke Bloembergen stressed that narratives and discussions around cultural heritage are in essence always political, and that ‘heritage’ is not a neutral given term. Klaas Stutje added to that that material culture, the destruction and collection of it, and possible restitutions are also socially layered histories, in which gender and class analyses should play a major role.
For Adieyatna Fajri it was insightful that the destruction of cultural property is a very important but not only episode in the cultural biography of a heritage object. It is but one of the many tumultuous chapters that heritage objects experience, a prelude to other, potentially conflicting chapters in an endless narrative of heritage formation. It may seem a paradox, but it is almost unavoidable that every moment of destruction contains a constitutive element of construction and reproduction. From the discussion, it emerged that the concept Cultural Genocide might be a useful intervention when we not only talk about the direct violence, but also the detrimental effects and legacy of the atrocity in the current context.
Looking back upon the discussions of the day, it struck Thijs Bouwkegt that the day’s discussion about Cultural Genocide in relation to objects and collections seemed preoccupied with the material dimension of reparation. This was all the more surprising, as common discussions about Cultural Genocide tend to focus on the immaterial and mental aspects of cultural repression. He alerts us to the fact that material objects are necessarily always part of an immaterial world of signification, power struggle and repression, that also need to be taken into account. Similarly, Bouwknegt indicates that the material discussion about objects is in fact part of an immaterial desire of formerly colonized countries and diasporic communities for recognition, reparation and inclusion.
For Floris Kunert it was very valuable that the concept of Cultural Genocide was discussed alongside many alternative concepts and characterizations of violence. It became very clear that the concept itself has a specific history, with strengths and limitations. It was a pity that the day was too short to really flesh out the concept of Cultural Genocide and define a workable alternative to discuss the history of colonial collections. However, the historicisation and conceptual clarification of the term make clear that it should not be simply used as a conceptual place-holder, or a moral or sentimental short-hand for violent histories of collecting. To Kunert’s remark we may add that Cultural Genocide as a ‘Travelling Concept’ invites us to reflect on loss, destruction and erasure in relation to presently existing objects and collections, but that we are still struggling to find the suitable vocabulary to address less systematic or fundamental attempts to destroy and recreate cultural heritage.
The discussions around the concept of Cultural Genocide and the discourse around processes of destruction, erasure and colonial recreation will be used and developed further in the Pressing Matter PhD research project of Adieyatna Fajri. His project considers the destruction in 1832 of the royal palace of Banten in Indonesia by the troops of Daendels, the role of the destruction in the emergence of a new Bantenese cultural identity in later decades, and the presence and absence of objects and sites related to that history.
Secondly, the discussions of this first workshop will continue in a second workshop which, as we hope, will take place in Indonesia, and which addresses aspects of resilience and resourcefulness in responses to legacies of cultural violence and destruction.