Repatriation is the act of returning something to its country of origin or rightful owners. Museums all over the world are working to responsibly return stolen objects to their rightful owners. Robin Cooper, Manager of Curatorial Affairs and Newfields and Dr. Purity Kiura, Senior Research Scientist and Director, Regional Museums Sites and Monuments of the National Museums of Kenya answer questions about how museums are working together to return objects to their communities and creators, through the lens of one project undertaken by Newfields in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya.
What is the Indianapolis Museum of Art repatriating?
RC: We are returning 18 vigango—singularly, kignago—to the Mijikenda people in Kenya.
What are vigango and what is their significance to the Mijikenda people?
PK: These are living objects that actively embody the spirits of the departed and honor elders. They symbolically give life and meaning to the departed and thus the family, friends, and community at large, who still communicate and interact with the departed, particularly during periods when they seek their intervention and advice.
Where are the vigango going in Kenya?
PK: To their rightful owners, the Mijikenda people, on the coast of Kenya. However, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) will receive them on their behalf as it is the government institution mandated with the management, protection, and promotion of Kenya's heritage. Once received by NMK, they will be given to the Mijikenda people.
How did the Indianapolis Museum of Art originally acquire vigango?
RC: These were donated as gifts to the Indianapolis Museum of Art by five different donors between 1987 and 1989.
How did the Indianapolis Museum of Art and National Museums of Kenya meet to collaborate on this project?
RC: I reached out to the National Museums of Kenya after learning about the vigango during a webinar in May 2021. Steve Nash from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and Dr. Kiura, presented on their successful collaboration to repatriate vigango from Denver to the Mijikenda. They have been instrumental in helping us shepherd this process and connect us with the Mijikenda elders.
How does the Indianapolis Museum of Art remove an object from its collection?
RC: In all cases, to remove and object from the collection, we complete a process called deaccessioning. Once we identify an object we wish to remove from the collection, we undertake extensive research and recording of the object. This includes completing donor and ownership history as well as photography and documentation of the object. The process is finalized at one of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s four annual Art Committee meetings where the decision to deaccession is voted upon by our committee members.
How long will repatriating these objects take from start to finish?
RC: Just over one year. I first learned of the request for museums to repatriate vigango in May of 2021, and we are scheduled to return the objects in early fall of 2022. Thanks to our incredibly supportive colleagues at the NMK, we’ve been able to communicate with the elders in the Mijikenda community and plan for the return of these objects in a very quick timeframe. We will travel to Kenya this fall to meet our NMK colleagues and have a ceremonial return with the Mijikenda.
Are there plans to display these in Kenya?
PK: The Mijikenda are planning to create a community center where returned vigango will be securely stored, preventing them from future theft, and providing a space where the community can once again honor and consult with their elders.
Is the Indianapolis Museum of Art currently working on repatriating other objects?
RC: Yes, we are participating in the Digital Benin project, and in doing so are taking a critical look at our holdings of Benin objects. This refers to objects stolen from the Kingdom of Benin during the British military’s punitive raid in 1897. We are in dialogue with scholars regarding this collection and continuing to research these objects so that we can present works for potential deaccession. The museum has taken part in a Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA) reviews in the past, but we continue to research our holdings in this area as collecting philosophies change over time.