A US museum is planning to hand 30 ceremonial totems later this month to a visiting Kenyan delegation in a move that could lead to the return of hundreds of sacred objects to their countries of origin.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is voluntarily presenting to the National Museums of Kenya the vigango donated to it in 1990 by Hollywood actor Gene Hackman and film producer Art Linson.
“There is no legal instrument or international treaty that requires us to return them,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the museum’s curator of anthropology. “This is not about the law; it’s about ethics.”
Officials of the museum in the US state of Colorado have determined that “these objects are communally owned and deeply sacred to the Mijikenda community of Kenya,” Mr Colwell-Chanthaphonh explained.
He said he hopes his museum’s action will encourage dozens of other institutions in the United States to return to Kenya the “hundreds” of vigango in their collections.
“We want to signal to other museums that that these are sacred objects and must not be treated as an ordinary vase or carpet,” Mr Colwell-Chanthaphonh said.
Only two vigango have previously been sent back to Kenya – one from a museum in Illinois and another from a university in Virginia.
SOLD BY DEALERS
The consecrated objects, created to commemorate relatives, are typically sold by dealers in the US for $5,000 (about Sh435,000) or more, with one fetching nearly $10,000 (about Sh869,000) at a 2012 auction in Paris, the New York Times recently reported.
Mr Colwell-Chanthaphonh said he had been seeking the return of his museum’s 30 vigango to Kenya for the past five years, but it wasn’t until November that an agreement was reached, he noted.
A delegation headed by Nairobi County Assembly Speaker Alex Ole Magelo had come to Denver then as part of the sister-city relationship between the Kenyan capital and Colorado’s capital city.
Discussions between the visitors from Nairobi and Denver municipal officials led to the decision to hand over the vigango to the National Museums of Kenya, which will determine whether to display them or to try to trace and return them to the sites where they were created.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science intends to conduct a formal ceremony marking the transfer of the vigango to Kenya.