Bells and Whistles: A Philippine Case Study of Repatriation and its Discontents

January 20, 2022

Kristi Rhead is a Ph.D. Student in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the politics of commemoration in the French postcolony, principally the Indian Ocean and Réunion Island.

Everyone seems to be talking about repatriation. The academic vogue reaches beyond just museum nerds; scholarly conversations in many disciplines approach repatriation (this is partially why ReConnect/ReCollect has generated so much interest), and even Hollywood has taken up the subject, most notably in Black Panther.[1] On the one hand, repatriation of objects responds to the real problem that European and American museums disproportionately house global material heritage because of colonial and postcolonial looting. On the other hand, the imbalanced ratio between repatriation discourse and repatriation action (cases of successful repatriation of physical objects and human remains are limited) points to problems, or at least logistical difficulties, with the concept. Must we consider that discourses about reparative justice might be serving other purposes besides simply repairing harm? What aren’t people saying when they idealistically speak of the possibilities of repatriation? This short essay seeks to explore what we mean when we speak of repatriation by analyzing efforts toward reparative heritage management in the Philippines. Discussing repatriation and the Philippine Collections at the University of Michigan allows us to interrogate the limits of repatriation discourse and explore the possibilities–as well as obstacles–for institutional change in heritage management.


Figure 1 President Duterte rings one of the bells at a ceremony celebrating their return

The history of repatriation of Philippine heritage centers on a major case that demonstrates the limits and promises of repatriation: the Balangiga Church Bells. The bells were among many objects that the United States took from the Philippines during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the twentieth century. Though various Philippine constituencies have been demanding the return of the bells since as early as 1935, the U.S. finally returned the bells from Wyoming to the Philippines in 2018, and by this time they had become something of a symbol of the anticolonial struggle.[2] On the surface, the return of the bells and its timing (coincidentally in the same year as the Black Panther film helped make repatriation an everyday issue) seem like a straight-forward victory for those interested in reparative efforts to heritage, but further geopolitical contextualization complicates this conclusion. In fact, the 2018 return of the bells under the Trump and Duterte administrations is the most recent move in over a century of strategic political maneuvering that began with U.S. imperial intervention in the Philippines. Most notably, the symbolic gesture of repatriating the bells came soon after the Chinese president made a diplomatic visit to the Philippines for the first time in many years, symbolizing an improvement in the relationship between the two nations. The Philippine president Duterte declared, “I just love Xi Jinping,” triggering anxieties in the U.S. about China’s growing global influence.[3] The return of the bells can be seen as a response to this concern on the part of the U.S., and as a domestic political strategy to consolidate power on the part of President Duterte.

Though much could be written on this subject, for the purposes of this essay, I argue that these dynamics are not unique to the case of the Balangiga Bells–repatriation usually fits into hundreds of years of politics that implicate objects, nation-states, and community groups. Furthermore, as academics and heritage workers, ignoring or papering over these dynamics to rid ourselves of “problematic” heritage and add our voices to trendy academic conversations can cause further harm, rather than mitigate it. The return of the bells, in this case, has less to do with prioritizing the good of the community from which they were stolen and more to do with strategic international relations. John Lee Candelaria writes about the bells, “While the intent of achieving historical justice points to the value of commemoration to reconciliation and transitional justice mechanisms, we have also witnessed how the effort to transform historical memory through commemoration serves not just the nation and the master narrative the state seeks to forward but also the agenda of the people in power.”[4] Rather than being a straightforward “good,” the politics of commemoration become a tool of strong-man politics.

A 2009 Philippine statute places the National Museum of the Philippines as responsible for cultural property and anthropological collections of the Philippines, and for recovering cultural properties under the custody of foreign enemies (RA10066, Section 29). While this indicates that there are systems in place for repatriation to the Philippines (the National Museum recovered human remains from the Burke Museum of Natural History in Culture, for example), it also suggests that (inter)national politics may shape conversations about reparative justice.[5] Just because a national government or museum maintains an official repatriation policy does not mean that this policy takes the interests of all relevant parties into account, or that the nation or museum can adequately speak for harmed community groups. What does this mean, then, for how we should think about decolonial repatriation more generally? The Bells and the Burke draw our attention to the nuances and symbolism involved in repatriation decisions, including the specificity of the repatriation of human remains as compared to objects. They also show how limited conversations about repatriation have been– we tend to focus on the physical repatriation of objects, when there is a range of possible kinds of repatriation, such as digital repatriation (this is already being explored with ethnomusicology and photograph collections in the Philippines), knowledge repatriation, and even artistic or artisanal repatriation. I argue that to explore these possibilities adequately, we need to think ethnographically and collaboratively, and that the language of legal policy, organizational policy, and geopolitics are likely not the appropriate–and certainly not the exclusive– registers in which to be conducting conversations about reparative justice.

Similarly, the [often performative] register of North American academic politics may also structure conversations around repatriation toward ends that do not prioritize community needs, but rather focus on scholarly careers and institutional self-preservation. The flashy, trendy nature of repatriation can lead scholars, like leaders and policy makers, to talk incessantly about the “bells and whistles” of reparative scholarship and remain silent when tougher issues come up. Without discounting the possibility of ethical, physical repatriation, we seek to move the conversation away from trendy “bells and whistles” and instead toward closer examinations about objects like the Balangiga Bells. How has their meaning evolved over time for the various parties invested in their fate? How do we acknowledge and weigh the (often contradictory) intellectual and moral investments and meanings imbued in a given object? Is physical repatriation the best means to repair harm? Is our answer to this question different if we are talking about human remains rather than non-human objects? Can we think past institutional and state structures as the default mechanisms for reparative work? Thinking hard about questions like these, and leaning into the discomforts they ultimately present, is integral to any reparative repatriation effort. We must talk about these things– if not, this post-Black Panther wave of repatriation-talk risks becoming yet another story about material heritage that is centered on exploitation. Already, ReConnect/ReCollect has found itself confronting these issues– reparative approaches to commemoration can require foreign institutions housing Philippine material heritage (and those working with them toward commemorative justice) to put themselves in vulnerable positions. Furthermore, university, national, and global politics incentivize self-censorship about logistical and ethical roadblocks. Yet, it seems reparative curation may require leaning into these risks and having uncomfortable conversations.

Given these concerns, we ought to imagine long-term community engaged commitment to heritage justice that integrates research work focused on policy with empathetic ethnographic approaches. What other constituencies, besides museums and national governments, should be consulted in conversations about repatriation? What are the dynamics among indigenous groups? What are their relationships to the government and to each other? How can we think of repatriation more broadly, beyond just speaking of physical objects like bells and museum items? ReConnect/ReCollect’s inclusion of an External Advisory Board is a first step at addressing these questions. They are not easy questions and exploring them requires long-term engagement with Philippine communities (especially indigenous communities, but also diasporic communities), scholars, museums, and citizens. Put simply, connections to community can help us understand these dynamics at an appropriate level to make significant, and often complex, repatriation decisions.

Working in consultation with various Philippine constituencies, ReConnect/ReCollect hopes to lean in to the logistical and moral complexities of postcolonial reparative justice and ultimately provide a roadmap for those interested in reparative heritage relationships in the Philippines. Whereas major cases of repatriation in the Philippines, such as the Balangiga Bells, reveal how repatriation and commemorative justice initiatives can serve state power rather than communities, ReConnect/ReCollect hopes to be an example of a long term, open-ended, community engaged, and ethnographically informed approach to material heritage.

Works Cited

Candelaria, John Lee. “1521, Duterte, and the Politics of Commemoration in the Philippines.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, August 15, 2021.

Coogler, Ryan, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong. Black Panther. Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, 2018.

Cruz, Deirdre de la, and Ricky Punzalan. “Humanities Collaboratory Project Grant Funding Proposal for ReConnect/ ReCollect: Reparative Connections to Philippine Collections at the University of Michigan,” June 2021.

Daniels, Nicole. “Should Museums Return Looted Artifacts to Their Countries of Origin?” The New York Times, October 16, 2020, sec. The Learning Network.

Delmendo, Sharon. 2004. The star-entangled banner: one hundred years of America in the Philippines. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

“Home · The Philippines and the University of Michigan, 1870-1935 · Philippines.” Accessed November 16, 2021.

McCarthy, Julie. “U.S. Returns Balangiga Church Bells To The Philippines After More Than A Century.” NPR, December 11, 2018, sec. World.

National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, Pub. L. No. RA 10066, 10066 Republic of the Philippines Congress of the Philippines Metro Manila Fourteenth Congress Thurd Regular Session (2009).

“National Museum of the Philippines – Posts | Facebook,” July 9, 2017.

Philippine Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act, Pub. L. No. RA 4846, Republic of the Philippines Congress of the Philippines Metro Manila Fourteenth Congress Thurd Regular Session (2009).

Ranada, Pia. “Duterte: ‘I Need China.’” Rappler. Accessed November 16, 2021.

“Simpson – 2009 – Museums and Restorative Justice Heritage, Repatri.Pdf.” Accessed November 18, 2021.

Simpson, Moira. “Museums and Restorative Justice: Heritage, Repatriation and Cultural Education.” Museum International 61, no. 1–2 (May 2009): 121–29.

TYRRELL, IAN. “CONFRONTING THE ‘E’ WORD: AMERICAN EMPIRE AND TRANSNATIONAL HISTORY.” Edited by Barbara J. Keys, Paul A. Kramer, Charles S. Maier, and Bernard Porter. Australasian Journal of American Studies 26, no. 1 (2007): 41–53. “US Returns Looted Balangiga Church Bells to Philippines.” BBC News, December 15, 2018, sec. Asia.


[1] Daniels, “Should Museums Return Looted Artifacts to Their Countries of Origin?”; Simpson, “Museums and Restorative Justice”; Coogler et al., Black Panther.

[2] Delmendo, Sharon. 2004. The star-entangled banner: one hundred years of America in the Philippines.

[3] Ranada, “Duterte.”

[4] Candelaria, “1521, Duterte, and the Politics of Commemoration in the Philippines,” 5

[5] “National Museum of the Philippines – Posts | Facebook.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *