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Uganda loans from Cambridge ‘not going back’

Artefacts loaned to Uganda from ​​University of Cambridge museum ‘not going back’, Museums + Heritage, 27 June 2024

More than 30 objects have been loaned as part of the  ‘Repositioning the Uganda Museum’ project.

Image: Objects from the Roscoe collection at MAA Cambridge.

Thirty-nine artefacts previously held at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for more than 100 years have successfully landed in Uganda as part of a repatriation project.

The reception of the objects was marked by a ceremony, held at State House of the President of the Republic of Uganda yesterday.

During the reception, President Yoweri Musevini reportedly told representatives from Cambridge University that they had misidentified one of the items as a ekyanzi (a milk pot) as a anegyemeko (water pot) used for hand-washing.

Musevini has called for Uganda Museum curators to consult with communities to enhance their knowledge of the artefacts, ahead of an exhibition being opened to the public.

Objects returned include a head-dress made of human hair, acquired from Lango in 1937; decorated pots from Ankole, acquired in the 1920s; and a Lubaale vessel from Buganda, acquired in 1907.

The repatriation programme is part of the museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s ‘Repositioning the Uganda Museum’ project, which began in 2021, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by Professor Derek Peterson at the University of Michigan.

In an article in The Africa Report, Peterson said of the objects “frankly, they’re not going back”.

Professor Peterson told Advisor: “British law concerning the ‘deaccessioning’ of museum objects is very difficult to navigate, and a long-term loan was the quickest and most straightforward way to get these objects to Uganda.

He said the project will proceed on two paths. “The objects that contain human remains (there are seven ‘balongo’, ritual objects that contain the embalmed remains of the ancient rulers of the Buganda kingdom) will be returned to the custody of the tombs from which they were stolen; and the Ministry of Tourism will—soon, I hope—file a request with the Cambridge museum to secure the title to these objects. That will hopefully be easy to organize, as British law concerning the repatriation of human remains is quite clear.”

He said the remaining objects are hoped to be cleared through the Charities Commission, a process which will “likely take a considerable time.”

In the meantime, archival research in the newly-inventoried government records of Uganda is being carried out  to ascertain the specific circumstances of the acquisitions by British missionaries and collectors.

“The hope is to put the 39 objects on show in 2025-26 in Kampala, where their stories will be told in full—not as ethnographic specimens, but as historical relics that testify to Ugandans’ shared and overlapping experience of colonial rule.”

The artefacts returning to Kampala were chosen by colleagues from the Uganda Museum following a research visit to Cambridge in November 2022.

This is the second time Uganda has received its cultural heritage artefacts from the museum. In 1961, the museum was one of the first in the UK to return artefacts, repatriating a group of relics associated with the deity Kibuuka. They were returned following a request by the then new government of independent Uganda, and placed on display at the Uganda Museum, where they remain today.