Skift Take

Although African officials view the tourism angle as secondary in their quest to retrieve stolen artifacts, they nonetheless see them becoming popular attractions for members of the diaspora increasingly eager to reconnect with the continent.

Museums are among the most visited locations around the world, with the world top’s 100 art museums attracting 71 million visitors in 2021 — a 31 percent rise from the year before. They’re also lucrative as museums contribute annually an estimated $50 billion to the U.S. economy alone.

And African officials believe they would get a tourism boost from the return of objects they argue were stolen from the continent. Although it’s not their primary motivation in fighting for their repatriation, African authorities envision those artifacts being tourist attractions at museums. Up to 90 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s material cultural legacy, including sound recordings and photographs, is located outside of the continent.  

Uganda, which aims to attract five million visitors annually by 2024, is one destination developing a strategy for showcasing the artifacts it hopes to retrieve. A team from the University of Michigan is working to repatriate objects from the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to the Uganda Museum, East Africa’s largest, as part of project titled Repositioning the Uganda Museum.

Ugandan officials plan to hold an exhibition in the Uganda Museum featuring the recovered artifacts in late 2023.

“It will add value to the stories we tell. It will bring new and additional audiences to our museums,” said Rose Nkaale, Uganda’s commissioner of museums and monuments.

“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.”

Raphael Chikukwa, the curator and the executive director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, which attracts roughly 30,000 visitors annually, also envisions getting a boost from retrieved artifacts. His museum hosted an art exhibition from July to October named The Stars Are Bright, which featured paintings created between 1940 and 1947 by students at the Cyrene Mission School, the first to teach art to Black students in the then-white minority-ruled Rhodesia. The works were stored in London’s St. Michael and All Angels Church after being sold to fund the school and didn’t return to Zimbabwe until this year.

“We can have community museums which are key in the preservation of our stories, culture and heritage,” Chikukwa said.

Juma Ondeng, a coordinator for the National Museums of Kenya‘s western region, believes community museums will be able to develop marketing strategies for items they retrieve. But he added that not every retrieved item needs to be placed in a museum, noting that sacred objects can be placed in cultural shrines or be kept by clan elders in their houses.

Ondeng cited the drum used by Kenya’s Pokomo people as an example of an object Kenyan authorities are fighting to retrieve. The drum, long considered the source of power for the tribe, has been held in a storage room in the British Museum since 1908 after being confiscated by British soldiers.

However, he has a much more significant motivation for fighting to recover the more than 32,000 Kenyan objects held in 30 institutions in the Europe and the United States.

“We need them back because it’s part of rectifying colonial injustice,” Ondeng said about efforts to recover those artifacts stolen by European nations and currently stored in museums across Europe.

Jim Chuchu, a Kenyan artist and cofounder of the International Inventories Programme, a research and database project investigating Kenyan objects held in museums worldwide, seconds Ondeng’s point.

“The objects in museums weren’t made to be boxed and preserved and fought over,” Chuchu said. “They were the product of the lives of our ancestors, and that’s why they matter today, because they serve as a connection to those ancestors.”

Although Germany, France and the Netherlands have repatriated looted African artifacts in recent years, the journey to find additional stolen objects has been arduous.

“We still don’t know where and what the Western museums hold when it comes to African objects,” Nkaale said. “Also, (you have to be) physically present in the UK. Visa regulations are tight and flights (are) expensive.”

But if African officials are able to make significant progress in recovering stolen artifacts, they believe tourism across the continent would receive a significant boost with members of its vast diaspora increasingly eager to travel to Africa.

“Africa needs to be celebrated here,” Chikukwa said. “Having (the artifacts) here will cut all these costs to be able to reconnect with our history. Having them here means the economic value, tourism is boosted and job creation is assured.

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Tags: africa, art, arts & culture, kenya, museums, tourism, uganda

Photo credit: Although it's not their primary motivation in fighting to retrieve stolen artifacts, African officials believe those items will be popular tourist attractions. Okoko Ashikoye / National Museums of Kenya

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