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

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

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

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