Kenya designs database to repatriate plundered cultural artifacts

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Kenya designs database to repatriate plundered cultural artifacts

Over the years, African countries have been called to bar for the repatriation of plundered cultural artifacts during the colonial era. Some African countries have heeded to the calling and have launched initiative actively moving towards the repatriation of the ancient artifacts. Kenya is the latest to join the ranks of the African countries launching an investigation into which objects were removed from the East African nation, wherein the West they are housed and who holds the agency to demand their repatriation. 

The task for the repatriation of plundered cultural artifacts is consistently increasing at sunrise, with many declining the infantilizing ideology that former colonies cannot be banked on to preserve their own cultural heritage. Repatriation is important for several reasons: i.e, it not only aims to solve historical injustices but also to restore the agency of countries once under colonial rule.

Seemingly, the initiative is the first of its kind in the history of Kenya, where a movement to investigate the cultural artifacts stolen and kept outside the country’s borders is launched. 

A business news site based in Kenya reported that at a 2018 event headlined “Object Movement Dialogues #1: Bring our things Home?” debate was held about Kenyan cultural objects being housed in institutions across the world. At the discussion, the coordinator of public programs at the National Museums of Kenya, Juma Ondeng’, directed the question to the audience: “The queen of England wears a crown always. Imagine what will happen to any African country if we could steal the crown and come back home with it?” After a surprised pause, people started sending their feedbacks that an invasion would be implemented or that the UK and other European nations might withhold development support in retribution. “That crown means a lot of things and is part of the English identity,” Ondeng’ went on. “And so, the moment you kidnap it, you are literally denying them that identity.”

The International Inventories Programme (IIP) is a research project launched by the National Museums of Kenya, the Nairobi-based arts collective “The Nest” and the “German social enterprise Shift”. This project is investigating a collection of Kenyan objects being apprehended in cultural institutions worldwide. Financed by the German cultural center in Kenya, the Goethe Institute, the program aims to create a first-of-its-kind inventory of Kenyan artifacts apprehended in public institutions abroad. Once the objects are identified in museums in the US, Germany and the UK, the concern is to get these works to Kenya and to feature them in permanent or temporary exhibitions.

Reports from IIP paper states that the program has an agenda that is twofold. The first aspect is “to fully take into account past, present and future stakes, in all their own technological, emotional and material dimensions”. The paper goes on to disclose that the program is “casting our eyes into the past: What kind of object left Kenya during (and after) the colonial time, and under what conditions? What functions do these objects perform overseas and what stories do they recount? What memories and acts did these objects leave (or not leave) behind? And, more importantly, what does it imply and mean, locally and routinely, to face these voids? How have knowledge transmission and production been transformed or affected  by these processes?”

The second aspect of the agenda is “to peer into the future: What other stories can these objects narrate today? And how can we imagine the recuperation of a situation that sees overfilled stores in the north facing scrimpy and thin museum collections in sub-Saharan Africa? What creative responses can be imagined to repair and correct these complicated situations? What does repatriation imply? Could strategies making use of 3D printing and other sophisticated technologies potentially bring emancipatory practices, at least in terms of the relations and conversations they try to give birth to?”

Reports from an article titled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics” which states that at least 181 objects currently at France’s Quai Branly-Chirac Museum. These include pots, metal bracelets, shield and spears, and goblet.

Hundreds of vigango totems; wooden statues (created to honor the dead among the Mijikenda people)  are also being apprehended 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 murdered him were returned in 2006.

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Western governments, Britain specifically, have been fighting against returning objects, even those on loan, claiming that they are custodians and conservers of humanity’s natural and cultural treasures, despite these objects having been illegally appropriated over the ages through conquest and colonialism.

Africh Royale

Africh Royale

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