Building a bridge with a local community in the case of looted cultural heritage

Dr. Naomi Oosterman interviewed in Trouw about looted cultural heritage

Bridging the gap with a local community after part of their cultural heritage was looted, can be quite difficult. However, dr. Naomi Oosterman (ESHCC), Liselore Tissen (Leiden/Delft University), and Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba (Rijksacademie) are attempting to do this with their project "3D reproduction methods in contested heritage". In this project, they focus on the Mixtec skull from the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden. Trouw newspaper interviewed them about their project.

Central to the project is the Mixtec skull (also called "turquoise skull") from the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden. The skull was found out to be a forgery, a few years ago: although the skull and the mosaic are from the 14th century, the glue used is 20th century. Most likely the skull was robbed from a grave in southern Mexico, after which the mosaics were added. The skull was then offered to the museum through a series of intermediaries and was eventually purchased by the museum in the 1960s.

In the interview, Oosterman, Tissen, and Aguilar Ruvalcaba talk about the complexities related to the restitution and repatriation of cultural heritage and human remains. They also talk about the consideration of art and heritage from a Western perspective; although the skull is listed as a museological "masterpiece" by the museum, it is considered an ancestor by the indigenous Mixtec community. With their project, the scientists and the museum are trying to build a bridge with the local community, in order to establish a constructive dialogue regarding possible repatriation. A lifelike 3D replica of the skull is central to this dialogue. The 3D replica will be used as a compromise, the indigenous Mixtec community can decide what they want to do with the actual skull, whereas the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden can exhibit the lifelike 3D replica.

What would happen to the actual skull?

By actively talking to the indigenous Mixtec community in the province of Oaxaca, Mexico, Oosterman, Tissen, and Aguilar Ruvalcaba are trying to find out what the local community needs regarding the skull. "They might want to bury the skull," Oosterman explains. "Until recently, we've only looked at the skull with a western point of view. We've considered the financial and cultural value from our point of view. But what if the Mixtecs decide that their ancestor needs to be reburied? That has cultural significance as well, as it makes the skull part of the culture it was looted from again."

More information

For more information, please contact dr. Naomi Oosterman at 


A series of lectures and expert meetings related to this project will be organized in October 2023. Would you like to be informed about these meetings? Then please contact Naomi Oosterman.

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