So that’s where our bracelets went!
Western museums are full of plundered objects. So what happened when a Maasai delegation travelled to the UK to discover where their sacred belongings ended up? By Yohann Koshy
Around a large table in a bright room in the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, four members of the Maasai tribe from east Africa are inspecting a small object. It has been carefully placed in front of them by a curator wearing special handling gloves. The Maasai say that it is a bracelet, an orkatar.
They talk between themselves, in the maa language, about what the bracelet is used for. “This is something that cannot be sold or given,” says Yannick Ndoinyo, a junior elder from Loliondo, northern Tanzania. The orkatar symbolises the death of a father and is a form of inheritance that passes down the generations. How did it end up in a museum in Oxford? Perhaps it was stolen from the original owner or given away under duress. According to the database, it was “donated” to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1904 by Alfred Claud Hollis, a colonial administrator in British East Africa.
This encounter between the Pitt Rivers, one of the most important ethnological museums in the world, and the Maasai is part of a process of cultural decolonisation. The relationship began when Maasai activist Samwel Nangiria visited the museum in November last year for a conference. The Pitt Rivers has more than 300,000 objects in its collection, many of which were “acquired” by colonial functionaries, missionaries and anthropologists in the heyday of the British empire. The museum itself is curated in a peculiar style – in line with the request of benefactor Augustus Pitt Rivers – with objects organised according to type rather than place of origin. This Victorian aesthetic has been consciously upheld: the Pitt Rivers is often referred to as a “museum of a museum”. There are shrunken heads from the Amazon and rudimentary tools from India; a magisterial totem pole from the Haida community in Canada towers above the central, darkened atrium.
Nangiria walked through the museum and stopped when he saw something he was not expecting: his own culture, entombed in a glass cabinet. “When I saw objects from the Maasai community I was a little bit shocked,” he tells me. “[They were] poorly described, with a lack of what the object is meant for [and its] cultural significance.” His heart started beating so fast that it felt like it was vibrating: “Because I know our culture is not dead. It’s a living culture.”
Nangiria, a purposeful and diplomatic presence, expressed his displeasure to the museum’s director, Laura Van Broekhoven. She sent him a copy of the museum’s strategic plan for the future and invited him back. Keenly aware of its problematic origins, the Pitt Rivers, like many museums, engages “originating communities” – in the museumworld lingo – to allow them to reclaim the narrative around their objects. Last month, Nangiria, with four other Maasai from Tanzania and Kenya, and help from the Oxford-based NGO InsightShare, returned to do so.
One purpose of the weeklong visit was to provide the museum with more accurate information. The database was littered with errors and gaps: it transpires that an object marked as a Maasai bracelet is actually an anklet; a trinket made for an unknown purpose in fact plays a vital role in circumcision rituals. After a Maasai sword is laid down on the table, Marina de Alarcón, joint head of collections, tells us that the museum takes great care when holding arrows, assuming that their tips – as is Maasai custom – are poisoned. Francis Shomet Ole Naingisa, a village elder, duly confirms this: “If the poison mixes with your blood then you have five minutes left.”
Of the 60 objects examined, the Maasai came across five that are sacred, which “they would not expect to find elsewhere apart from within their community”. One was the orkatar. Another was an isurutia, a necklace used as a wedding dowry. Nangiria sent a photograph to village elders back home via WhatsApp: “They were astonished to hear that such a thing was here,” he tells me. “They say this particular object might have brought bad omens to the family [who lost possession of it].” For the Maasai, these items are not historical curiosities. They are part of a living culture.
The relationship between European museums and the people from whom their collections were taken has never been more fraught. The same week as the Maasai visit, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, governor of Easter Island, begged for the return of the Hoa Hakananai’a statue from the British Museum in a tearful message that went viral on social media: “You, the British people, have our soul.”
A few days later came the publication of a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, who had expressed his desire to see colonial-era items in France returned to Africa. Macron has his own reasons for this type of cultural diplomacy: it eases the passage of further economic and military cooperation with Francophone Africa. Nonetheless, the report is bold, recommending that France return African treasures if governments request them.
Museums handle the question of repatriation as delicately as their objects. The Museum Association’s policy statement notes that it is a “complex issue involving a range of emotional, ethical, legal and political factors”. In my interviews I heard suspicion from some in the museum world about the politicised nature of state-to-state transactions, while the legal framework governing returns can be ambiguous, as has been with the case with recovering art stolen during the second world war. The British Museum has agreed to hold talks about Hoa Hakananai’a, but a likely conclusion will be a temporary return on loan, as was the case with Nigeria’s Benin bronzes.
Repatriation, however, is not the only form of decolonisation. For the activist Alice Procter, who gives unofficial tours of London museums that foreground their histories of colonialism and slavery, just as urgent is transforming the institution itself. “Decolonisation means rethinking the structure of the museum,” she tells me. “Until people from [originating] communities are actually working in museums with their collections on a permanent and long-term basis, it won’t be truly institutional change.”
Procter tells me that the Pitt Rivers is a good example of a museum working hard to “rethink the role, power and status of
An elder confirms the arrow tips are poisoned. ‘If it mixes with your blood you have five minutes left’
When the governor of Easter Island asked for the return of a statue he said: ‘The British people have our soul’
‘Our culture is living’ … Scholastica Ene Kukutia tours Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Hoa Hakananai’a, the Easter Island moai in London