April 11, 2006

First ever loan cultural objects to Africa by former colonial government

Posted at 12:55 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

More on the British Museum’s temporary loan of African objects back to Africa for an exhibition. Despite the controversy surrounding acquisition of many of the pieces in the exhibition, the Kenyan curator Kiprop Lagat tries to take a more pragmatic approach. Many who read what he has written here & elsewhere will feel that he has bought too much into the British Museum’s own ideology of how the world is supposed to work.

The East African

Artefacts on loan
April 10, 2006

It is the first time in history that a former colonial government is loaning cultural objects to Africa. Fred Oluoch reports

KENYANS WILL HAVE AN opportunity to see some unique cultural artefacts that were carted from the continent almost 100 years ago

The exhibition of the artefacts that has since been lying at the British Museum in London is unique in that it is the first time in history that a former colonial government is loaning objects to Africa.

The objects on display are a selection from the wider Eastern Africa comprising Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Southern Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Dubbed “Hazina – Traditions, Trade and Transitions in East Africa,” and housed at the the Old Provincial Commissioner’s building in Nairobi’s central business district, the exhibition aims to increase understanding of the rich diversity and cultural heritage of East Africa.

“Hazina” is a Kiswahili word that encapsulates beauty, treasure and value.

The exhibition will cost £300,000 ($800,000), which includes air freight, marketing and security. It is financed by the British government in conjunction with the British Museum and British Council. It is supervised by the National Museums of Kenya.

However, it faces the danger of being bogged down by the recurrent controversy over repatriation of precious African cultural material from foreign countries.

Proponents of repatriation argue that the scramble for Africa’s antiquities could in the long run transfer the entire continent’s cultural heritage to the West compelling Africans to pay dearly to see what was once theirs.

But according to Kiprop Lagat– the curator of the exhibition and who has been working on the show’s logistics for the past two years– the restitution of collections held in foreign museums to their original owners is a sensitive issue facing the museum community.

As way of resolving this dispute, museums with “encyclopaedic” collections need to create new ways of ensuring that cultural objects held in their institutions are made accessible to the global community, he added.

“We tend to get nationalistic whenever we talk of our items being in the world’s leading museums. It is a debate that should be left to museum professionals and not politicians,” said Lagat. “Politicians are likely to make a big issue out of the exhibition, because we cannot stop politicians from talking. But they do so without technical information.”

“The Western museums, “he continued, “have better facilities and the items are better taken care of there, in addition to getting more exposure than in African museums. The British Museum for instance, receives up to six million visitors per year from all over the world, and some tourists who see the items get curious to see more in their countries of origin, hence their visits here.”

As it is, most African governments have invested little time and resources in the protection of museum collections, despite their being important institutions of research and education.

Though the issue has been extensively discussed and agreements reached with some countries, demands for restitution occasionally come up. The best example is the recent return of the Ethiopian Obelisk from Italy.

The exhibition, according to Lagat, is a case of the British giving something back in recognition of the benefits accrued to it over the years.

“World renowned museums have realised that keeping their collections in one place is of no use no matter how precious they are,” said Lagat.

Through this arrangement it is anticipated that new partnerships between museums in the south and the north will be established, and give new impetus research on East African peoples and their cultures. Similarly, long-term collaborations of mutual benefit to these institutions will be established in training, loan of objects, exhibition, conservation and research.

International travelling exhibitions and exchanges are common among museums in Europe, America and the Far East countries such as China and Japan. However, loan of objects to African museums rarely happens because it is often too expensive for them to afford the high insurance costs and transport.

BESIDES, AFRICAN countries – from the European perspective– are considered insecure to properly manage the objects on loan due to fears of insecurity and lack of conservation skills. Yet, Lagat, who works with the National Museums of Kenya says that such fears are not justified as museums in Africa have started to take the management of cultural heritage seriously.

The exhibition is a major boost to the National Museums at a time when there is a growing campaign to include African museums in the international circuits of museum exhibitions.

Among those on display are objects depicting trade between East Coast of Africa and the rest of the world, otherwise known as the Indian Ocean maritime trade, involving China, India and the Middle East. Glass ornaments and jewellery that influenced some forms along the East African coast, like the Ming Balls from the Ming Dynasty in China.

The other aspect of leadership are the symbols used by the traditional rulers, among them the Baganda Royal Drums, and the cloaks used by Marakwet paramount chief Chemtut, when he visited London in 1960s on invitation by the Queen.

Also on show are instruments of leadership and major political events in post-colonial East Africa like a Khanga commemorating the 1967 Arusha Declaration. The Luo Ogut Tigo (the beaded cap) won by politicians Jomo Kenyatta, Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya and Ronald Ngala during the independence constitutional negotiations at Lancaster, as a symbol of nationalism.

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