London exhibition of looted Ethiopian treasures reignites debate on repatriation


An exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum displays artefacts that were “collected” during an 1868 expedition to Ethiopia by the British army. It has reignited conversations about repatriation and reparation in the museum professions, and a very important conversation in the public domain.

The big question still remains, then, should the artefacts stolen, looted, plundered, collected and or bought from Africa by the Western world be returned to African nations?

Many intellectuals in and out of the cultural and heritage sector will join the mass choir and say a big yes! It is well within their rights for have such opinions. The fact, however, remains that repatriation and reparation are much easier said than done.

What is clear is that the artefacts under discussion were transferred from Africa to the Western world under circumstances that stink with abuse of human and cultural rights, death, slavery, colonisation, conquests and illicit trade in cultural materials. Rarely were these artefacts given as gifts from the source communities, but such incidents are not unrecorded in history.


In the case of the Ethiopian artefacts, which include human remains, the minister of culture has publicly declared that Ethiopia would like her artefacts back. In such an instance, repatriation is a good solution. These artefacts are likely to be given their rightful place in the heritage of that nation as museum pieces.

It is important to realise that artefacts stolen from source communities are “frozen” in time, place and use. One of the items being recalled by Ethiopia, for example, is a crown that was worn by emperors. Ethiopia does not vest authority in emperors anymore. The crown is a symbol of authority and royalty. Will it have the same meaning when, and if, it is returned?

Plundering cultural heritage does not only move artefacts, it also destroys meaning, which either dies, is forgotten or is overtaken by time. So when Africa demands the return of these items, there must be agreement at the national and community level on what is to be done with them.
The concept of acquiring things for hording or beauty in Africa is borrowed from our colonisers.


The beauty of artefacts was not for its own sake, but was an integral part of daily life. A gourd with an intricate beaded pattern will still be used for mursik and its beauty admired as it ferments milk. The idea of putting it in a case to “stare” at is untenable to the African way, but has been extensively borrowed by formal institutions such as museums.

Some of the artefacts were plundered for their fiscal value – they are made of valuable metals such as silver and gold and many times ingrained with precious stones. These are of financial value to any country and their cultural use having been devalued and or forgotten, can be reclaimed purely because of their monetary value. It is also morally correct to bestow this fiscal value on the communities from whom they were taken and not the nations that currently hold them.

Many African countries have not made any legal and regulatory framework to accommodate repatriated artefacts, creating untold risks for these artefacts. Where artefacts are being repatriated without a clear thought-out plan, there is the risk that they may fall into the hands of illicit traders in cultural materials and ending up in the display case of some affluent criminal somewhere, denying their universal value to the world and their cultural value to their communities.


They may also end up in some dark store, unused, unloved, undervalued, disused, unappreciated and a waste, so to speak. In this instance it might be that they are of better value to the world in those affluent museums in the West where they are studied and cared for at the moment.
And this is not a hypothetical situation.

Some vigango (sacred artefacts of the Miji Kenda community) were returned to Kenya some years back. Customs charged duty that the community could not afford and these items remain abandoned in storage, somewhere. Black marketeers celebrate when they hear of artefacts abandoned in dark corners.

Aren’t such artefacts then better off in prestigious institutions in the West until we can sort out the tail end of repatriation? Repatriation is in the area of difficult heritage and it is unrealistic to think that it is a walk in the park.

The 2010 Constitution bestowed the role of museums to the county governments. This is the one effort Kenya has made to ratify the fact that artefacts belong to source communities. But the laws to put this noble thought to effect remain a dream. It is only when they are put in place that Kenyans can happily join the repatriation mass choir.

And we are not anywhere close to the discussing reparation!

Twitter: @muthonithangwa

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