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Cambridge University agrees to hand African artefacts back to Uganda

Cambridge University agrees to hand colonial-era African artefacts back to Uganda so the items can ‘live again’

  • Artefacts that should be prioritised for repatriation were discussed during a visit
  • Professor Derek Peterson said they should be with those who give them meaning
  • Cambridge said they will work with Uganda to return objects to African Museum

Cambridge University has agreed to hand back priceless African artefacts to Uganda so the items can ‘live again’.

The University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) is in talks with the Uganda Museum about repatriating the objects to the east African nation in 2023.

The scheme, Repositioning the Uganda Museum, is intended to return items of significance to their cultural homes.

Ugandan charms (Mayembe) and traditional wear (Kanzu) are among the historic pieces in the collection that could soon return home.

The University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) is in talks with the Uganda Museum about repatriating the objects to the east African nation in 2023. Uganda’s Commissioner for Monuments and Museums, Rose Mwanja Nkaale, and the Curator, Nelson Abiti, visited the museum last month to discuss which objects should be prioritised for repatriation

 The scheme, Repositioning the Uganda Museum, is intended to return items of significance to their cultural homes

Uganda’s Commissioner for Monuments and Museums, Rose Mwanja Nkaale, and the Curator, Nelson Abiti, visited the museum last month to discuss which objects should be prioritised for repatriation.

They were joined by Derek Peterson, a professor of History and African Studies at the University of Michigan, who is principal investigator for the Repositioning project.

He said of the project: ‘We want to put these objects back into the hands of people who made them meaningful.

‘We want them to live again, not only as museum pieces but as part of Uganda’s public culture.

‘These objects have been dislocated both in space and in time.

‘Colonial-era collectors took them out of Ugandans’ hands and made them into specimens of ethnic identity. 

‘We want to put them back into the hands of the people who made them meaningful, to open up dialogues about the onward course of families, clans, and professions.’

Commissioner Nkaale added: ‘Uganda is looking forward to this grant, the first of its kind towards restitution.

‘Bringing these items back – and attracting those from around the diaspora to see them on the continent – will also help people come to terms with their own collective memory, celebrate their rich histories and identities, and be able to pass this on to future generations.’

It comes after the project was awarded an £81,515 ($100,000) grant from the arts and humanities organisation the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.

Commissioner Nkaale said: ‘Uganda is looking forward to this grant, the first of its kind towards restitution. Bringing these items back – and attracting those from around the diaspora to see them on the continent – will also help people come to terms with their own collective memory, celebrate their rich histories and identities, and be able to pass this on to future generations’

During the visit, Ms Nkaale and Mr Abiti were joined by Derek Peterson (pictured), a professor of History and African Studies at the University of Michigan, who is principal investigator for the Repositioning project

He said of the project: ‘We want to put these objects back into the hands of people who made them meaningful. We want them to live again, not only as museum pieces but as part of Uganda’s public culture. These objects have been dislocated both in space and in time’

He added: ‘Colonial-era collectors took them out of Ugandans’ hands and made them into specimens of ethnic identity. We want to put them back into the hands of the people who made them meaningful, to open up dialogues about the onward course of families, clans, and professions’

According to a spokesperson for Cambridge University, they will work further together in 2023, ‘towards the return of artefacts for community liaison, study and display at the Uganda Museum’

On the University of Michigan website dedicated to the Repositioning project, a spokesperson has written: ‘In the late-nineteenth century, British missionary John Roscoe was in the Kingdom of Buganda – part of present-day Uganda – collecting ethnographic objects and operating partly under the direction of the MAA.

‘This was common practice for European empires, who extracted not only raw materials but also art, cultural artefacts, and religious objects from their colonies.

‘At best it was an uneven transaction; at worst, it was outright theft.’

A spokesperson for Cambridge University said: ‘The team at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was delighted to host colleagues from the Uganda Museum for a rewarding collections study visit over a week in November, 2022, which helped all of us understand important late nineteenth and early twentieth century collections of heritage artefacts, as well as archives and photos, more deeply.

‘Through 2023, we’ll work further together, towards the return of artefacts for community liaison, study and display at the Uganda Museum.’

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