Recently, the media has been running stories about Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom demanding the return of the their properties allegedly stolen by the British colonial masters. One of the key objects in question is the 9-legged royal stool/throne on which all predecessors of the current Bunyoro king sat, including King Kabalega, who was exiled by the British for resisting colonialism in 1899. The royal throne is currently kept at Oxford in Pitt Rivers Museum in England.
Besides the stool, Bunyoro says during the colonial era, almost 300 artefacts were taken. The kingdom’s current monarch, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, has spent the better part of his reign campaigning for their return. Whereas Bunyoro has a right to reclaim what belongs to her, some people might have a different view. First, one questions the ability of Bunyoro Kingdom to look after the 300 artefacts without a common place or a museum in Hoima where these items could be preserved. At Pitt Rivers Museum, the items are in good condition, well preserved and professionally labelled.
What Bunyoro is doing is what we call repatriation in the museums and heritage conservation field. Repatriation is the return of cultural objects looted from their country of origin whether in the context of imperialism, colonialism or war.
The debate surrounding art repatriation differs case by case due to the specific nature of legal and historical issues surrounding each case, but below are general arguments that Bunyoro Kingdom needs to pay attention to:
Artefacts are a part of a universal human history and when they are displayed in encyclopedic museums such as Pitt Rivers Museum, they are widely disseminated. Also, having artefacts such as the royal stool from Bunyoro shown around the world enhances the understanding and appreciation of African culture by non-Africans.
Lastly, Pitt Rivers Museum is located in Britain where objects from Bunyoro have been showcased to an international community. If the objects were to be moved to Hoima, they would be seen by fewer people.
Some precedence of repatriated art has already been set in other countries like Ethiopia where a number of artefacts stolen by Italians have been returned. However, the encyclopedic museums that house much of the world’s artworks and artifacts are located in Western cities.
Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda