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Pitt Rivers to restore Maasai artefacts

A group of Maasai tribespeople visited Oxford this month as part of an effort to retrieve sacred objects held by the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Maasai are an indigenous group from Kenya and northern Tanzania, with a reported population of around two million in total.

Two treaties in 1904 and 1911 reduced Maasai lands in Kenya by 60 per cent when the British evicted them in favour of settler ranches. More land was further taken for the creation of wildlife reserves and national parks, including Serengeti National Park.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is contacting indigenous peoples directly about restoring articles.

This is part of the Living Cultures project which works to represent the history and narratives behind artefacts held in museum collections, relating the impact of the colonial past to the present.

Starting in 2017, Living Cultures is a partnership between Maasai representatives from Tanzania and Kenya, the Pitt Rivers Museum and InsightShare.

InsightShare, an Oxford-based NGO, has worked with indigenous communities for over 20 years.

The Maasai visit came after Samwel Nangira, a Maasai from Tanzania, visited the Pitt Rivers when he was at a conference.

On his visit, he questioned the labels attributed to some of the objects in the museum: “what does ‘collected’ mean? Like when you find something in a forest, so not donated, and not robbed?”

In January, seven representatives of the Maasai came to Oxford at the invitation of Laura van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers, and InsightShare, to determine where and when the objects were taken.

In a press release, the Pitt Rivers Museum said: “The visit, bringing one of the largest cross-national delegations of Maasai leaders to the UK, is a continuation and elaboration of the last visit, leading on to the next steps of the conversation and allowing for ceremonial and spiritual guidance by the elders.”

Among the delegation was Lemaron Ole Parit, a spiritual leader with mystical powers. Out of 188 artefacts, Mr ole Parit identified give he thinks are “culturally sensitive enough to warrant a return.”

Artefacts are especially important to the Maasai because they represent the continuation of a dead person’s life. Amos Leuka, a member of the delegation, said: “If somebody dies, we treat the artefacts as equally as important as a dead body.”

In 2017, Emmanuel Macron said that he wanted to see the return of artefacts to Africa within five years. This contrasts with the usual defensive position taken by former colonial powers.

In Britain and France, there are laws which prevent museums from releasing objects, which had been stolen from formerly subjected people.

Since Macron’s statement, the movement for restitution has grown. While several museums in the UK are constrained by the legislation that binds national collections, Universities are not.

Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, which holds the university’s archaeological and anthropological collections, has returned 28 stolen objects thus far, all of them human remains.

The Pitt Rivers Museum said in a statement: “Museums are bearers of difficult histories and their collections are continued causes of pain for affected communities. By working together to reimagine these museums as spaces in which reconciliation might be able to come about, we believe that anthropology museums, like anthropology itself, can become anti-racist projects and sites of conscience.”

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