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Denver Museum to Return Totems to Kenyan Museum

Have you read the article featuring AAA members, Chip Colwell-Chanhaphonh (Denver Museum of Nature and Science), Linda Giles (Illinois Wesleyan U), Stephen Nash (Denver Museum of Nature and Science) and Monica Udvardy (U Kentucky), regarding the return of the totems to the National Museums of Kenya?

Here’s an excerpt:

Now, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science says it has devised a way to return the 30 vigango it received as donations in 1990 from two Hollywood collectors, the actor Gene Hackman and the film producer Art Linson. The approach, museum officials say, balances the institution’s need to safeguard its collection and meet its fiduciary duties to benefactors and the public with the growing imperative to give sanctified objects back to tribal people.

“The process is often complicated, expensive and never straightforward,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the museum’s curator of anthropology. “But just because a museum is not legally required to return cultural property does not mean it lacks an ethical obligation to do so.”

The museum this month will deliver its 30 vigango (pronounced vee-GON-go; the singular form is kigango) to the National Museums of Kenya. Officials there will choose whether to display the objects, hunt through the nation’s hinterlands for their true owners and original sites, or allow them to decay slowly and ceremoniously, as was intended by their consecrators. Whatever they opt to do, Kenyan officials say, sovereignty over the objects should be theirs and not in the hands of foreign museums.  (The details of the transfer are still being negotiated.)

But repatriating them takes far more than addressing a parcel. No federal or international laws prevent Americans from owning the totems, while Kenyan law does not forbid their sale. And the Kenyan government says that finding which village or family consecrated a specific kigango is arduous, given that many were taken more than 30 years ago and that agricultural smallholders in Kenya are often nomadic.

Some 20 institutions in the United States own about 400 of the totems, according to Monica L. Udvardy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky and an expert on Kenyan culture who has studied and tracked vigango for 30 years. She said that Kenyans believe that vigango are invested with divine powers and should never have been removed from their sites and treated as global art commodities. Kenyan officials have made constant pleas to have the objects sent back.

Read the entire article at The New York Times.

Read this powerful virtual issue from Museum Anthropology

The Deafening Silence:
NAGPRA, Repatriation, and
the Pages of Museum Anthropology

In the 20 years since the passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), an astonishingly small number of contributions with “repatriation” or “reburial” in the title have been published in Museum Anthropology and its precursor, the Council for Museum Anthropology Newsletter. All are reproduced in this virtual issue of Museum Anthropology , which serves as a precursor of, and complement to, the publication of a special thematic issue of Museum Anthropology (vol. 33, no. 2) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the passage of NAGPRA. Continue reading

Focus on NAGPRA: March Anthropology News Now Online

March Anthropology News In Focus commentaries on repatriation are now posted on our Current Featured News page, free to the public throughout the month.

Since its passage in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has prompted significant conversations on physical and intellectual property rights, identity politics, human rights and professional ethics. This month’s commentaries, published in NAGPRA’s 20th anniversary year, examine a range of repatriation issues, from the challenges of interpreting genetic and cultural affiliation, to tribal heritage programs and museums’ consultation processes.

Full issue content will be available soon via AnthroSource, including the commentaries and additional thematic articles from other sections. See also the 2009 AAA Photo Contest winners featured in the March issue (to be posted on AnthroSource in full color).

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