Cambridge University to return Uganda’s historic artefacts

Visitors view one of the displays at Uganda National Museum. Photo / Morgan Mbabazi

What you need to know:

  • The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation based in the US will repatriate several dozen artefacts, a small subset of the hundreds of thousands of objects taken from Africa in the colonial era, writes Bamuturaki Musinguzi.

The University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in England is set to return historic artefacts to the Uganda National Museum in Kampala. The items were collected and donated to MAA by the late British anthropologist and missionary Rev John Roscoe.
Roscoe (1861–1932) was a missionary from the Anglican Missionary Society to East Africa. 

In 1884, he travelled to what became the British Protectorate of Uganda and lived there among several indigenous tribes until 1909.  He spent 25 years in Africa and conducted anthropological data collection of the Africans he encountered on his mission.
Roscoe’s most widely held anthropological books are The Baganda: An Account of Their Native Customs and Beliefs (MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1911),” “The Northern Bantu: An Account of Some Central African Tribes of the Uganda Protectorate (1915),and Twenty-five Years in East Africa (1921), among others.

According to Derek R Peterson, a professor of History and African Studies at the University of Michigan, US, the Cambridge museum holds around 1,400 separate ethnographic objects from Uganda, many of them acquired by Roscoe, others were donated by Buganda Kingdom’s then Katikkiro (prime minister), Sir Apolo Kaggwa (1890-1926). Most of Roscoe’s collection has not been displayed in Cambridge.   
Dr Peterson will serve as principal investigator for the pilot project dubbed, ‘Repositioning the Uganda Museum,’ working with a team of colleagues from both MAA and the Uganda National Museum to repatriate these objects from the Cambridge museum to Uganda. 

The project that was recently awarded a $100,000 (Shs356m) grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation based in the US will repatriate several dozen artefacts, a small subset of the hundreds of thousands of objects taken from Africa in the colonial era. 

The project’s biggest legacy might be establishing a set of recommendations that will guide future repatriation efforts, including research and provenance, exhibition, storage, training, and programming.  The idea is to create a sustainable model that other African museums might adopt.
The project team will select a set of artefacts from the Cambridge museum, repatriate them to Uganda by the end of 2022, conduct research on their history and provenance, and exhibit them in the Uganda museum in late 2023. 

Makerere University graduate students will assist with research. The project is one small step in the larger campaign to undo the legacy of collecting in the colonial era. 
In 2024, a conference will invite scholars and museum curators from Uganda, surrounding countries, and Uganda museum to reflect on the exhibit and project. Two publications will come from these efforts, an exhibition catalog and an open-access white paper on the project itself.
“We want to put these objects back into the hands of people who made them meaningful,” Dr Peterson said. 

Rose Nkaale Mwanja, Uganda’s commissioner for museums and monuments, said:  “We want them to live again, not only as museum pieces but as part of Uganda’s public culture. 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,” Mwanja added. 

“We are starting with a pilot project, focusing on a few dozen objects. It’s a way of making the project manageable, both financially and logistically. We have a limited budget to work with, and the costs of insuring and transporting these objects will be considerable. Moreover: by focusing on a few dozen really consequential objects we’ll be better able to do justice to them,” Dr Peterson told Daily Monitor.  
“We want to research the ‘provenance’ of each object, identifying the people from whom the objects were taken, locating their descendants, and conducting research on the onward course of people’s lives and careers.

 We can do that intensive research more carefully if we’re dealing with a smaller number of objects,” he added. 
“We are intending to meet in Cambridge in July 2022—after (we hope) the virus (Coronavirus) has abated—to go through the Cambridge collections and identify a few dozen objects that will be repatriated. We are hoping that these objects will be in Uganda by the latter months of 2022,” Dr Peterson said. 
He said in 2022-2023, they will be conducting research about the history of the objects that have been repatriated. 

“The plan is to have an exhibition at the Uganda Museum in the latter months of 2023, where we will tell the story of these objects in their fullest sense, linking their biographies to the history of colonial Uganda. That exhibition will lead to an academic conference—in 2024—where scholars from Uganda and other places will discuss the project and develop a general set of guidelines and lessons around the work of museological repatriation.” 

The relics of Buganda war lord Kibuuka Omumbaale on display at the Uganda National museum. Photo/ Morgan Mbabazi

“We hope that this pilot project will be a first step to a bigger programme of work. There are lots of Ugandan objects in the British Museum and in other big European institutions. We see this small-scale pilot project as opening a door, developing a template that can guide curators in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa in the years to come,” Dr Peterson added. 
The MAA director, Prof Nicholas Thomas, told Sunday Monitor  that following the pilot, further funding would be sought in support of a wider programme.

“The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is committed to open and responsive discussion with communities and institutions in countries of origin, where there is interest in accessing and researching collections, or interest specifically in the return of heritage to institutions such as national museums,” Prof Thomas said. 

Uganda’s missing cultural properties
According to the Department of Museums and Antiquities in Uganda, a lot of pottery, basketry, woodwork, leatherwork, bark cloth, musical instruments, clothing and adornment, magic and religion, war and violence were taken out of Uganda by the colonialists. 

During the colonial days the British and their agents collected cultural objects across the country, some of which were brought to the Uganda museum, while others were taken as personal properties by the colonialists to their countries of origin. Some objects were either negotiated for or simply looted out of the country.

 Both the British and the Oxford University Museums in England hold many of Uganda’s cultural properties that were either taken there by the colonial masters or donated by private collectors. Others can be found in Europe and America.
Among Uganda’s missing cultural properties scattered around the world in museums and in hands of private collectors is the famous Luzira Head found in the British Museum in London, England. 

The Luzira Head, taken to London in 1931, is made out of fired clay with the head measuring 20x17x17 centimetres and the body 22x16x16 centimetres. There is only a replica of the Luzira Head showcased at the Uganda National Museum today. It was discovered in 1929 during the building of a prison at Luzira on the shoreline of Lake Victoria near Kampala. There were later excavations by E.J. Wayland, the Government Geologist in 1931, but nothing new was found. The figure was given to the British Museum by Wayland in 1931.

 MAA says it is fully aware of the significance of the Roscoe collection and other material from Uganda, and it is fully supportive of the initiative to return material to the Uganda museum, which would build on its direct contacts with Uganda National Museum staff over recent years. 

“We engage in these discussions on a case-by-case basis — there is no single approach that is relevant to all countries or communities. Not everyone considers it essential or even desirable that all artefacts, or entire collections are returned — it may be very important that, for example, Ugandan art and heritage continues to be displayed in European museums for international audiences,” Prof Thomas said.

“The process of researching, conserving and repatriating a large collection such as the Roscoe collection is time-consuming and expensive. Funding available is limited, but will enable study visits on the part of Uganda Museum colleagues — some of whom have previously visited the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, leading to the selection of artefacts particularly relevant to the Uganda museum displays that are in development; their return can then be arranged,” he said. 

“It is an open question at this stage what proportion of the collection would be returned to the Uganda museum. This will depend on discussion with Uganda Museum colleagues, who will also decide which artefacts are highest-priority for the pilot return,” Prof Thomas added.  

Return of Kibuuka Omumbaale relics
According to Prof Thomas, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge returned sacred artefacts (the relics of Buganda’s war lord, Kibuuka Omumbaale) to the Uganda Museum in 1961.
“That repatriation was a success - in the sense that the heritage has been on public display in Kampala ever since. But we have been far too slow, in following up that initiative.” 

“The Mellon Foundation’s support will empower fresh engagement with the Uganda museum, and will involve both rich academic dialogue, and the return of heritage of exceptional significance. This carefully-conceived programme will provide a model for similar initiatives elsewhere in Africa, and indeed elsewhere in the world,” Prof Thomas added. 
The relics of Kibuuka, the mythical medium of war of the Baganda, was returned by Britain in 1962 at the time of Uganda’s independence and donated to the Uganda museum where it is showcased today.  Kibuuka’s shrine at Mbale in Mawokota, Mpigi District, was tampered with during the religious wars of 1888-1890 in Buganda. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, his relics were taken to Britain. His relics at the Uganda museum include his lower jaw in case, penis in case, testicle in case, stool for relics, animal skins, umbilical cord, decorated mat, knife, shields and iron bell, among others. 
The world’s leading museums, including the British Museum and the National Museum of African Art, hold hundreds of thousands of artefacts taken from former colonies in Africa, Asia, and beyond. 

Despite increasing advocacy from activists, museum professionals, and scholars in their country of origin, only a small percentage has been repatriated. The MAA, like many museums, is adopting a new approach.

A collection of Uganda musical instruments on display at the Uganda National Museum. Photo/ Morgan Mbabazi

Members of the MAA team have more recently been closely involved in the work of the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), towards the return of collections looted in 1897 to a major new museum in development in Edo State, Nigeria. 
“With respect to the broader policy issue - MAA specifically, and the University of Cambridge Museums, are committed to an open, responsive approach to dialogue. This may lead to the return of artefacts in some cases, and other approaches such as joint research or exhibition in others,” Prof Thomas said. 

According to Dr Peterson, Roscoe collected objects from many parts of Uganda, so that today there are objects from Ankole, Bunyoro, Busoga and Buganda held in Cambridge.
“It is the curators at the Uganda museum who will identity the objects to be repatriated. I expect that we will prioritise objects for which there is a substantial archival record—for which, that is, Roscoe left information about the object, where it was obtained from, how it was obtained. We will very likely also try to select objects that represent the breadth of Uganda’s historical and cultural experience—that is, we want Ugandans generally to recognise and learn from the things that we bring back from Cambridge,” Dr Peterson said. 
“But we won’t make specific choices until July next year, when we see the objects and go through the archives in Cambridge,” he added. 

As to the value of these research collections and artefacts, Dr Peterson, said:  “Financially, the value of these objects is relatively small. Recently public discussion around repatriation has focused on the famous bronze statues from Benin, in contemporary Nigeria, which are incredibly valuable works of art. They were stolen from Benin in the late 19th century as the loot collected by a British military expedition; today they are regarded as artistic and cultural masterworks.” 
“The objects that we are dealing with, by contrast, are not collectors’ items. They have not been valued as ‘art’ by museum curators or by collectors. That is not to say that they are not beautiful, or that they are not important. It is that they don’t have the cash value that West African art objects command,” he added. 

“That is partly to do with how the history of the artistic canon got formed. Beautiful objects from western Africa have influenced modern European artists like Picasso. Beautiful objects from eastern Africa, by contrast, have generally been classified by curators as ‘ethnographic,’ as reflective of tradition and culture, not as art. These classifications matter in shaping the way that objects are displayed in museums; they’re also important in determining the commercial value of things,” he added.  
Asked whether there are plans to return all Rev Roscoe’s collections to Uganda in future, Dr Peterson replied: “I do not know whether all of Roscoe’s objects will be returned to Uganda or not. It is not for me to say. That is up to curators in Cambridge and in Kampala.”

How collection was acquired
“Most of the Roscoe collection was acquired through purchase—that is, he paid cash to sellers in Uganda. His collection was made at a time of great tumult, politically and culturally; religious practitioners expert in the old ways were divesting themselves of the instruments of their trade, and they found in Roscoe a means to dispose of things they needed to get rid of. 
So it was not an equal bargain: Roscoe’s collection was built in a time when there was a buyers’ market. It was not built through a military campaign; it was not the spoils of war, acquired by unjust and violent means,” he added.  
“It is hard, therefore, to say—as a matter of principle—that Cambridge should simply send the whole collection back to Uganda. My sense is that, in future, both the Cambridge museum and Uganda curators will work to identify and repatriate meaningful objects that can enrich public understanding of colonial history. But let’s see how things go over these next four years,” Dr Peterson said. 

Asked if this isn’t one of the best ways of repatriating stolen artefacts from the West back to Africa, Dr Peterson replied: “I do think that there is a lot of work that universities and museums can do together to make history—in Uganda and elsewhere—more engaged with public life. Bringing these objects from Cambridge to Uganda is more than a simple transfer of ownership. It is a chance to open up a closed chapter in Uganda’s past, to cast light on the personal, cultural costs of colonialism.”

“In the late 19th century thousands of objects that had once been vital to the lives of people, professions and cultures were made redundant, disposable, irrelevant. Some of these things ended up in John Roscoe’s hands. What were the consequences of the reorientation of Uganda’s religious and cultural life? How did people in those years experience such dramatic shifts in the logic of religion and culture—and how have their descendants lived out those changes? Those are the questions we would like to pursue over the next few years of work,”  he added.