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African treasures to return to kingdom

King of Bunyoro-Kitara in Uganda, His Majesty Omukama Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, has recently returned to Uganda from a mission to the UK to promote the region.  His Majesty’s party attended a diaspora event for questions and answers with Ugandan parliamentarians, where the region’s potential for oil production was discussed, and also visited one of the University of Oxford’s museums.

The Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara, Uganda

The Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara, Uganda, courtesy of the Association of Representatives of the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara

Bunyoro-Kitara is reputed to be the oldest kingdom in the Great Lakes region of Africa, from which other noteworthy kingdoms have stemmed, such as the kingdom of Rwanda.  Bunyoro-Kitara is now one of a handful of sub-national monarchies still existent in Uganda since the reconstitution of the kingdoms in 1993. There was a temporary lapse in their existence between 1967 and 1993, after President Milton Obote disbanded the traditional kingdoms as a means of securing further power.

As part of his expedition to the United Kingdom, His Majesty visited a number of artefacts on display at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford and met with museum officials.  Some objects, hailing from the kingdom, have remained the subject of contention as they were taken during the colonial period. In 1894, the British declared Uganda a Protectorate, however, Banyoro (the people of Bunyoro-Kitara) and Bugandans resisted the colonial interference, resulting in conflict. At this time, a number of items were looted by Henry Edward Colvile.  The Pitt-Rivers Museum has offered to help the kingdom to identify and locate the items.

The Pitt-Rivers collection was donated chiefly by the Rev John Roscoe, who completed the Mackie Ethnological Expedition in 1919-20.  A further 30 items were donated by Akiki Kanyarusoke Nyabongo, a prince of the neighbouring kingdom of Toro, who completed his doctorate at the university in the 1930s.

Of particular significance to the Banyoro is a royal throne of former King Omukama Chwa II Kabalega, who is famed for his resistance to colonialism.  There is also a traditional crown amongst the possessions.  The entire collection from the region is said to number 279 items.  Since 1999, part of the museum’s Bunyoro collection has been on permanent exhibition on the lower gallery of the museum in a display entitled ‘Rank and Status in Bunyoro’.

The Pitt-Rivers and representatives of the kingdom discussed opportunities for collaboration in terms of conservation work and research to protect and increase understanding about the objects.  An agent of the king, Francis Mugerwa, in a Facebook post to the Masindi News Network subsequently reported that “the museum officials promised to return Bunyoro’s assets”.  Attorney General to the kingdom, Robert Irumba later clarified to the Ugandan Daily Monitor that a “willingness to repatriate” was expressed, “when we are done with the construction of our museum.”

The Pitt-Rivers Museum has said that “Loans from the University of Oxford’s collections involve criteria for the assessment of collections’ safety, including security and environmental considerations, to ensure that the objects are enjoyed by local audiences and return in good condition.”  The museum acknowledged the kingdom’s intention to build a new museum and cultural centre at Hoima and has offered to provide advice to see that it meets with these requirements.

There is a growing trend for museums to respect the wishes of traditional communities to have objects returned to them that were taken under colonialism.  For instance, in 2003 the University of Aberdeen returned a headdress to the Kainai Blood Indian tribe of the Blackfoot confederacy in Canada and in return the community helped the university’s Marischal Museum establish a display dedicated to the community.  Dr Neil Curtis, the museum’s curator, noted how the act had a very positive impact on its relations with the Aboriginal group.  In view of this, perhaps a gift or two would make a greater contribution than any loan.

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