University of Michigan Professor Derek Peterson (History, Afroamerican & African Studies) will serve as principal investigator for “Repositioning the Uganda Museum,” working with a team of colleagues to repatriate objects from the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) to the Uganda Museum in Kampala.

The project was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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. Makerere University graduate students will assist with research. The project is one small step in the larger campaign to undo the legacy of collecting in the colonial era.

“We want to put these objects back into the hands of people who made them meaningful,” said Peterson. “We want them to live again, not only as museum pieces but as part of Uganda’s public culture.”

“Repositioning the Uganda Museum” will repatriate several dozen artifacts, a small subset of the hundreds of thousands of objects taken from Africa in the colonial era. The project’s biggest legacy 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.

“Uganda is looking forward to this grant, the first of its kind towards restitution,” said Rose Mwanja Nkaale, Uganda’s commissioner for museums and monuments

“‘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.”

The project timeline calls for the MAA objects to be relocated to the Uganda Museum by the end of 2022. In early 2023, the team 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 U-M to reflect on the exhibit and project. Two publications will come from these efforts, an exhibition catalog and an open-access white paper on the project itself.

“These objects have been dislocated both in space and in time,” said Peterson. “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.”

The Uganda Museum, 2018. (Photo: Derek Peterson)

In the late-nineteenth century, British missionary John Roscoe was in the Kingdom of Buganda—part of present-day Uganda— collecting ethnographic objects and operating partly under the direction of the MAA. At that time, the kingdom was in turmoil, suffering a series of religious wars and increased interference from the Imperial British East Africa Company (Buganda became part of the British Empire in 1900). It was a time of massive political and social transformation. As Protestant Christians gained power, non-Christian practitioners of the old religion were eager to shed any symbol of their prior beliefs. In other words, Roscoe built his collection at a time when the instruments of the old way of life were dramatically devalued.

This was common practice for European empires, who extracted not only raw materials but also art, cultural artifacts, and religious objects from their colonies. At best it was an uneven transaction; at worst, it was outright theft.

The majority of the artifacts Roscoe collected are held in storage in Cambridge. Most have not been displayed. In 1961, the MAA 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, MAA director. “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.”

The world’s leading museums, including the British Museum and the National Museum of African Art, hold hundreds of thousands of artifacts taken from former colonies in Africa, Asia, and beyond. Despite increasing advocacy from activists, museum professionals, and scholars in their country of origin, only a small percentage has been repatriated. The MAA, like many museums, is adopting a new approach.

“This carefully conceived program will provide a model for similar initiatives elsewhere in Africa, and indeed elsewhere in the World,” said Thomas.

The repatriation of objects from Europe and the United States to African countries will take time and money, especially if the work is both deliberate and collaborative. “Repositioning the Uganda Museum” could be the blueprint for a much wider effort.

“This is a risky project, and there’s a lot at stake,” said Peterson. “The Cambridge curators are giving up part of the collection they have built. The Ugandan curators are trying to find a different framework with which to display ethnographic objects. I’m very pleased to be able to work with both institutions in making new kinds of museums actionable.”