August 24, 2005

British Museum to lend disputed artefacts to African nations

Posted at 12:31 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

There are Many African items in the British Museum’s collection over which the ownership is disputed. A few of these artefacts are now being lent to a temporary exhibition that is going on display in Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda, giving a chance for these the people of these countries to see their own Heritage (albeit only for a short period of time).

The East African

UK to lend stolen artefacts to EA for six months
The EastAfrican

The British National Museum has agreed to return on a six-month loan hundreds of artefacts taken away from the three East African countries during the colonial period.

The collection of historical and cultural material will be used for an exhibition based on the history of East Africa which will be held in April next year at the old Nairobi PC’s office.

It will later move to national museums in Tanzania and Uganda. The collection, which includes cultural artefacts and a collection of weapons and uniforms used by the Mau Mau freedom fighters in Kenya’s struggle for independence, will then be returned to London.

Idle Farrar, director general of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), said, “It’s an invaluable collection that has not been seen in the region and constitutes original material that is priceless for both historical and cultural value.”

The deal comes at a time when Kenya is joining other African countries in efforts to retrieve historical and cultural artefacts lost mostly during the colonial period.

Although conceding that a huge collection of materials being loaned to East Africa for the exhibition rightfully belongs to Kenya and its sister states, Dr Farrar prefers a non-confrontational approach.

“We believe that the lost artefacts shall be returned to their respective countries through dialogue,” said Dr Farrar.

The decision to host the Kenya chapter of the exhibition at the old PC’s office, which is a gazetted monument, is due to the impending refurbishment at the NMK, which will be closed from October to 2007 to facilitate construction of new structures.

The exercise is part of an 8-million-euro refurbishment sponsored by the EU to rehabilitate NMK.

Apart from their aesthetic value, items like tools and documents at the exhibition will be of significant value to historians researching the early phases of the region’s development.

“It’s a major breakthrough for the three countries in that people of all social and academic persuasions will have an opportunity to see the original material that forms the basis of the region’s cultural and historical evolution,” said Dr Farrar. He said that much of the collection to be featured was lost over 100 years ago and has not been publicly displayed outside British museums.

Among the countries which waged aggressive campaigns to reclaim material lost to colonisers is Ethiopia. It successfully lobbied for the return of the Axum Obelisk, a 3,000-year-old, 24-metre granite structure stolen by the Italy in 1935. It was returned to Ethiopia this year after a lobby that started in 1947.

Other materials in custody of British and other overseas museums include dummies of the two famous lions – Ghost and Darkness – which killed dozens of Indians in Tsavo during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway in the early 1900s.

They are now part of the exhibits at the Chicago Museum, which bought them from Col Paterson, the British Army engineer who supervised the construction of that section of the railway.

In an earlier interview, a former director of the Kenya National Archives, Dr Maina Kagombe, said the Hoover Institute of the US has crucial documents related to massacres committed by the British administration in Kenya in the 1950s. He said that the material was in microfilm that had been made before the original documents were destroyed.

Information pertaining to the independence movement has obvious sensitivities, owing to the fact that most of it is embarrassing to the British government. Some of the Kenyans it implicates are still alive – some of them high-ranking government officials.

Besides the artefacts and documents taken away during the colonial period, trafficking of artefacts has continued in Kenya.

Dr Farrar said the lack of controls in the movement of such material has complicated the process of tracing them and some may be hard to locate.

But even for those traced, the shared heritage and history may complicate efforts by individual East African countries to successfully petition their return.

The head of programmes at Unesco’s office in Nairobi, Trevor Sankey, told The EastAfrican that the three countries may need to consult because some of the cultural artefacts may be claimed by any one of them.

This is largely due to the fact that they were colonised by the same country and shared cross ethnic heritage. For example, the Maasai inhabit the Kenya and Tanzania border areas, while the Luo live in Kenya and Uganda.

“We are encouraging countries to reclaim lost material; we were actively involved in the case for Ethiopia,” said Mr Sankey.

However, some overseas museums are reluctant to return such artefacts, claiming that they preserve them for humanity. They also allege and that African countries lack the capacity to ensure safe-keeping for such items, which are of universal significance.

To ensure that this argument does not arise in future, NMK has been training its archivers on care maintenance and security of such materials. Early this year, a senior NMK official admitted that poor archiving may have led to the loss of invaluable material at Kenya’s museums.

For a long time, it was unclear whether the Department of Ethnography was under the NMK or the Institute of African Studies. The ambiguity created a lapse in the controls and records, making it easy for for people to walk away with material to sell to collectors.

The increase in demands for retrieval of such material has also been complicated by the increase in the number of countries seeking lost material from former colonisers and private museums. European museums have also formed a common front to defend their continued possession of such material.

Last year, 18 international museums signed a memorandum in support of the British Museum against demands by the Greek government which wants artefacts being held in Britain returned to Greece.

Their memorandum read in part: “Whether purchased or gift, the works acquired decades ago have become an essential part of the museums that cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations that house them.”

But the success of Ethiopia has given vital impetus to East Africa. The Ethiopian Ambassador to Rome, Mengistu Hulluka, said after the return of the Obelisk, “This may be a starting point for returning the cultural heritage of many countries.”

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