By Fredrick Nsibambi
Recently, the media both local and international has been awash with claims by Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom demanding for the repatriation of her properties allegedly stolen by the British colonial masters.
One of the key objects in question is the 9-legged royal stool/throne on which all current King of Bunyoro’s predecessors sat, up to King Kabalega, who was exiled by the British for resisting colonialism in 1899. The royal throne is currently kept at Oxford in Pitt Rivers Museum in England.
According to some people, the current King was not properly installed because he did not sit on the same throne as his predecessors. Therefore, there is a general belief that the return of the missing throne would be a significant political victory for not only in what was once the greatest and richest kingdom but also for Africa as a continent.
Besides the stool, Bunyoro says that during the colonial era, almost 300 artefacts were taken – with or without her consent. The kingdom's current Monarch, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, has spent the better part of his reign campaigning for their return. The kingdom has taken legal action against the British government for theft and destruction of property.
Whereas Bunyoro has a right to reclaim what belongs to her, some people might have a different view. First and foremost, one questions the ability of Bunyoro Kingdom to look after the 300 artefacts without a common place or a museum in Hoima where these items could be preserved. At Pitt Rivers Museum, the items are in good condition, well preserved and professionally labeled.
What Bunyoro is doing is what we call repatriation in the museums and heritage conservation field. Repatriation is the return of cultural objects looted from their country of origin whether in the context of imperialism, colonialism or war.
The debate surrounding art repatriation differs case by case due to the specific nature of legal and historical issues surrounding each case, but below are general arguments that Bunyoro Kingdom needs to pay attention to:
Artifacts are a part of a universal human history and when they are displayed in encyclopedic museums such as Pitt Rivers Museum, they are widely disseminated. Such museums also cultivate the dissemination of knowledge, tolerance, and broad cultural understanding.
Secondly, artifacts were frequently excavated or uncovered by looters, who brought to light a piece of artwork that would otherwise never have been seen; foreign-led excavation teams have uncovered items that contribute to cultural knowledge and understanding.
Thirdly, having artefacts such the royal stool from Bunyoro disseminated around the world encourages international scholarly and professional exchange. It also enhances the understanding and appreciation of African culture by non Africans.
Lastly, Pitt Rivers Museums is located in Britain whereby objects from Bunyoro have been exposed to an international community. If the objects were to be moved to Hoima, they would be seen by far fewer people.
However, this does not mean that Bunyoro Kingdom should sit back and relax. Some precedence of repatriated art has already have been set in other countries like Ethiopia where a number artefacts stolen by Italians have been returned.
Foreign-led excavations have justified colonial rule; in the pursuit of obtaining knowledge about the artifacts, there was a need to establish control over the artifacts and the countries where they were located. It can also be argued that the encyclopedic museums that house much of the world's artworks and artifacts are located in Western cities and privilege European scholars, professionals and people.
The writer Works with the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda.