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Uganda’s Historical Artifacts to be Repatriated from England

The artifacts were collected by the British missionary John Roscoe in the late-nineteenth century, who was in the Kingdom of Buganda collecting ethnographic objects and operating partly under the direction of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. According to Peterson, some of them were acquired with the aid of Katikkiro Apollo Kaggwa.
15 Sep 2021 12:27
Derek Peterson
Uganda’s artifacts will be repatriated from the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology thanks to a project titled "Repositioning the Uganda Museum.”

The project received a grant worth USD 100,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the task undertaken by Derek Peterson, a Professor of History, Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Peterson recently led a project for digitizing Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) archives and has also co-published a book titled Unseen Archives of Idi Amin.   

The artifacts were collected by the British missionary John Roscoe in late-nineteenth-century, who was in the Kingdom of Buganda collecting ethnographic objects and operating partly under the direction of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. According to Peterson, some of them were acquired with the aid of Katikkiro Apollo Kaggwa.

At that time, the kingdom was in turmoil, suffering a series of religious wars and increased interference from the Imperial British East Africa Company. As Protestant Christians gained power, non-Christian practitioners of the old religion were eager to shed any symbol of their prior beliefs giving Roscoe a chance to build his collection at a time when the instruments of the the old way of life was dramatically devalued.

The majority of the artifacts Roscoe collected are held in storage in Cambridge and many of them have not been displayed. Now the project team will select a set of artifacts from the Cambridge museum, repatriate them to Uganda, conduct research on their history and provenance, and exhibit them in the Uganda Museum, East Africa’s oldest museum, the University of Michigan History department said in a statement.

The project timeline calls for the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology objects to be relocated to the Uganda Museum by the end of 2022. “We want to put these objects back into the hands of people who made them meaningful,” Prof. Peterson is quoted in the statement. “We want them to live again, not only as museum pieces but as part of Uganda’s public culture.”  

The project is one small step in the larger campaign to undo the legacy of collecting in the colonial era, they argue. Its biggest legacy, the statement said, might be establishing a set of recommendations that will guide future repatriation efforts, including research and provenance, exhibition, storage, training, and programming. The idea is to create a sustainable model that other African museums might adopt.   

In early 2023, the team led by Prof Peterson will begin research and exhibit design, with the exhibit opening later that year. In 2024 a conference will invite scholars and museum curators from Uganda, surrounding countries, and the University of Michigan to reflect on the exhibit and project. Two publications will come from these efforts, an exhibition catalogue and an open-access white paper on the project itself.  

Prof Peterson says the objects have been dislocated both in space and in time. “Colonial-era collectors took them out of Ugandans’ hands and made them into specimens of ethnic identity. We want to put them back into the hands of the people who made them meaningful, to open up dialogues about the onward course of families, clans, and professions,” he is quoted in the statement.  

In 1961, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology returned a set of sacred artifacts to the Uganda Museum. “That repatriation was a success—in the sense that the heritage has been on public display in Kampala ever since,” said Professor Nicholas Thomas, the director of the museum.

“But we have been far too slow in following up that initiative. The Mellon Foundation’s support will empower fresh engagement with the Uganda Museum, and will involve both rich academic dialogue, and the return of heritage of exceptional significance.”

Rose Mwanja Nkaale, Uganda’s commissioner for museums and monuments said Uganda is looking forward to this grant, the first of its kind towards repatriation of artifacts. Bringing these items back—and attracting those from around the diaspora to see them on the continent—will also, help people come to terms with their own collective memory, celebrate their rich histories and identities, and be able to pass this on to future generations,” she is quoted in the statement. 

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