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Its time to return what was stolen from Africa

Kenya tries again to attack the vicious cycle that prevents artefacts being returned by museums in the west. They will not return them because Kenya does not have suitable facilities to keep them. If they were returned though, the huge visitor draw would easily pay for upgraded facilities within the country.

All Africa [1]

Africa: It’s Time to Return What Was Stolen
East African Standard (Nairobi)
27 June 2007
Muthoni Thang’wa, Nairobi

Who owns the past? There are efforts by some Kenyans to reinvent themselves and find value and meaning in a cosmopolitan world.

In an effort to make peace with the past in Africa, there has been a call for repatriation of materials held in some of the largest museums in the world. In one of the most interesting debates going on in the world of heritage, the controversy pits mainly African, Asian and Middle East institutions against some of the most prestigious museums in Europe and America.

The debate is centred on materials that include human remains, art, jewellery and objects that are and have been held in the museums for a long time.

Some of the articles are of great prestige and interest – the Egyptian mummies – while others are of outstanding monetary value such as gold pieces taken by the British in Kumasi in the then Gold Coast, present day Ghana, in 1874.

Africa is making great efforts to reinvent itself. It wants to understand and own her past and the material remains that are part of her long history of political aggression that has resulted in deprivation of cultural objects.

The objects, whether bought, ‘borrowed’ or stolen, were to a large extent taken at a time when Europeans were convinced that Africans were primitive and degenerate people. Now, African museums are basically stating that Europeans are entitled to their opinions on what kind of people we are.

But we nonetheless want to repossess the objects that were created and given value and meaning in our cultures. We want to take care of them in the best way we can. In 2002, 18 major museums in Europe and America, including the British Museum in London, the Louvre Museum in Paris, State Museum Berlin, Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, Guggenheim Museum in New York, signed an agreement, the ‘Declaration on the importance and value of Universal Museums.

They proposed that the objects in their collection have become part of the museums that have cared for them and, by extension, part of the heritage of the nations that house them. This argument is difficult to buy.

For an object of religious veneration, for example, to be part of the English heritage would mean that the English first start believing in the veneration of African ancestors since that is the basic foundation of religion.

In the absence of a religious system in which ancestors are accorded a place, the objects are devoid of meaning. Cultural objects have no ‘living’ meaning unless they are in use in the value systems that created them.

The concept of universality is somewhat warped unless there is a universe that does not include Asia, Africa and the Middle East. First, the people of the regions are mainly poor and the possibility that they will travel to Europe and America to visit museums and enjoy the universality of the objects is nil.

Second, even where opportunities present themselves for visits to these countries, entry restrictions ensure that very few go to Europe and America. In reality, the museums claiming universality are doing so with the conscious knowledge that this excludes a large majority of the peoples from whom the objects were stolen.

There is also the question of what real value in cultural systems the objects would bring back to Africa given that culture is dynamic and things have drastically changed since they left the continent. In terms of adding value to collections in African museums, the items are, of course, invaluable.

They would be a tremendous boost to tourism and an addition to the beautiful beaches and diverse wildlife that are already the great pride of African and Asian countries, drawing millions of visitors and dollars in income.

Some museums such as C Carlos at Atlanta’s Emory University, US, have returned objects that were part of the heritage of the countries they belong to. The return of a 3,300-year-old mummy to Egypt in 1999, thought to be that of King Ramses I, a 13th century ruler, has set the pace.

At the same time, it switched the panic buttons that demands for such returns would result in the dismantling of collections in European and American museums. But the wind of change is here and heritage institutions must not only keep the dialogue going, but also allow the debate to be all-inclusive.

Even as institutions that stand to lose the most make a case for universal museums, they must realise that the objects that they hold so dear will not add value and meaning to their cultural system because they did not create them in the first place.

To say that the materials are safer from destruction and theft in those museums is an insult. Cultural objects do not really decay. If they remain in the value system that created them, they simply take new meaning.

How many people would visit the National Museums of Kenya if our collections held in the British Museum in London were returned? Millions!

The writer is a curator at the Karen Blixen Museum