Calls for the repatriation of plundered cultural artefacts are consistently growing louder, with many rejecting the infantilising ideology that former colonies cannot be trusted to preserve their own cultural heritage. Repatriation is important for a variety of reasons: For example, it not only seeks to address historical injustices but also to restore the agency of countries once under colonial rule.
Seemingly for the first time in Kenya’s history, there is a movement to investigate the cultural artefacts stolen and kept outside the country’s borders.
The business news site Quartz reported that at a 2018 event headlined “Object Movement Dialogues #1: Bring our things Home?” a discussion was held about Kenyan cultural objects currently housed in institutions across the world. At this session, Juma Ondeng’, the coordinator of public programmes at the National Museums of Kenya, posed this question to the audience: “The queen of England wears a crown. What do you think will happen to any African country if we could sneak in, pick that crown and come back home with it?” After a surprised pause, people started commenting that an invasion would ensue or that the UK and other European nations might withhold development aid in retribution. “That crown signifies lots of things and is part of English identity,” Ondeng’ went on. “And so, the moment you steal it and run away with it, you are also denying them that identity.”
The International Inventories Programme (IIP) is a research project undertaken by the National Museums of Kenya, the Nairobi-based arts collective The Nest and the German social enterprise Shift. This international research and database project is investigating a collection of Kenyan objects being held in cultural institutions across the globe. Funded by the German cultural centre in Kenya, the Goethe Institute, the programme seeks to create a first-of-its-kind inventory of Kenyan artefacts held in public institutions abroad. Once the objects are identified in museums in Germany, the UK and the US, the aim is to get these works to Kenya and to feature them in permanent or temporary exhibitions.
According to the IIP concept paper, the programme has an objective that is twofold. The first aspect is “to fully take into account past, present and future stakes, in all their own material, technological and emotional dimensions”. The paper goes on to explain that the programme is “casting our eyes into the past: What kind of object left Kenya during (and after) the colonial time, and under what conditions? What role do these objects perform abroad and what stories do they recount? What memories and acts did these objects leave (or not leave) behind? And, more generally, what does it mean and imply, routinely and locally, to face these voids? How have knowledge production and transmission been affected or transformed by these processes?”
Some time in 2018, I and @thisisthenest got involved with the International Inventories Programme (https://t.co/iBhvY8rAWj) – a partnership of institutions like @museumsofkenya, artists and researchers whose goal is to create a database of these objects.
— Jim Chuchu (@jimchuchu) June 21, 2019
The second aspect of the objective is “to peer into the future: What other stories can these objects narrate today? And how can we imagine the convalescence of a situation that sees overfilled stores in the north facing meagre and sparse museum collections in sub-Saharan Africa? What creative responses can be imagined to repair and mend these complex situations? What does repatriation imply? Could strategies making use of 3D printing and other digital technologies potentially create emancipatory practices, at least in terms of the relations and conversations they try to give birth to?”
According to a report titled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics” there are at least 181 objects currently at France’s Quai Branly-Chirac Museum. These include a goblet, shield and spears, metal bracelets and pots.
Hundreds of vigango totems – wooden statues designed to honour the dead among the Mijikenda people – are also being held both in museums and private collections in Europe and the US. Notably the skull of freedom fighter and Nandi chief Koitalel Arap Samoei is still held in Britain, even though the relics he owned that were stolen by the British officer who killed him were returned in 2006.
Western governments, especially Britain, have been fighting against returning objects, even those on loan, claiming that they are custodians and conservers of humanity’s cultural and natural treasures, despite these objects having been unlawfully appropriated over the ages through conquest and colonialism.