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Faith Nyasuguta

After decades away, 39 Ugandan artifacts have returned home. The University of Cambridge returned these items, which range from tribal regalia to pottery. Some of these artifacts were shown exclusively to AP journalists on Wednesday, June 12.

The artifacts remain part of the collection of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, which is loaning them to Uganda for an initial period of three years, according to Mark Elliott, the museum’s senior curator in anthropology. 

Traditional artifacts repatriated by University of Cambridge /AP/

Elliott described the initiative as “very much a museum-to-museum collaboration,” stemming from years of discussions about returning objects deemed “exceptionally powerful and exceptionally sensitive to communities whose belongings they were.”

The selected objects, chosen by Ugandan curators, represent a small fraction of about 1,500 ethnographic items from Uganda that Cambridge has held for a century. Most were acquired through donations from private collections, with many given by an Anglican missionary active in Uganda in the 1890s and early 20th century. Uganda gained independence from the UK in 1962.

The next step involves researching the contemporary significance of these items and making decisions about their future, Elliott explained. The Uganda Museum in the capital, Kampala, plans to put on a temporary exhibition of the artifacts next year.

A traditional artifact, repatriated by the University of Cambridge, Kampala, Uganda, June 12, 2024. /AP/

The agreement between Uganda and Cambridge is renewable, potentially allowing for a permanent loan and possibly local ownership, said Jackline Nyiracyiza, Ugandan government commissioner in charge of museums and monuments. “Sixty years have passed for us to get 39 objects,” she noted. “We are working with the Cambridge team to talk to other museums and hopefully repatriate more items next year or in the near future.”

Ugandan officials first traveled to Cambridge in 2022 to seek such restitution as more African governments began demanding accountability for items of aesthetic or cultural value looted before and during the colonial era. Elsewhere in Africa, including Nigeria, there have been successful restitution events in recent years.

“This is the biggest single movement of objects returned to the African continent in recent years,” said Nelson Abiti, principal curator of the Uganda Museum. He hopes this move could set an example for other museums with ethnographic items from Uganda.

One of the repartriated artefacts /AP/

Restitution remains a challenge for African governments, and the African Union has made the return of looted cultural property a priority on its agenda. The continental body aims to establish a common policy on this issue.


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Faith Nyasuguta

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