Of all the occupations in the world, why did he trade in our ancestors!
January 3, 2014 6:33 PM   Subscribe

NYTimes: "The paleontologist Richard Leakey has called their removal a “sacrilege.” Kenyan villagers have said their theft led to crop failure and ailing livestock. It is little wonder, then, that the long, slender wooden East African memorial totems known as vigango are creating a spiritual crisis of sorts for American museums."

The types of statues and their cost is discussed further here, which is where the title quote was taken from. More on Udvardy's research here and here, with much more background on the statues themselves and their use within Mijikenda society. National Geographic touches on Kenyan art and repatriation here. California State University, Fullerton has an interesting pamphlet with background on their now repatriated collection of vigango here, with a little background on how and why the statues are made and a brief print bibliography. When Denver's collection has been returned to 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.
posted by jetlagaddict (20 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

Tell it to Elgin.
posted by angerbot at 6:43 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure why I'm surprised that this was still going on as late as 1990, but for some reason it does.

How recent are most of the national laws about exporting art, artifacts, and items of cultural note? Every country I've traveled to with a complex colonial past has very strict laws about this. And it's not like "totes smuggled out of the country" wouldn't show up in the provenance of an object like this. The article mentions that the sale of these objects is not illegal in Kenya, but it strikes me as completely absurd that there wouldn't be laws about their removal from Kenya.

Is there less scrutiny of objects like this if they come to a museum as a gift?
posted by Sara C. at 6:53 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

So the legal background on art and artifact sales/looting internationally is really complicated and the legality varies so dramatically by country, country of import, age of the artifact, and other factors that it's hard to draw a hard line, even if 1970 is the "big" year. (Here's an article by the AIA on an MoU with China that has some good background and links to this government site with more information on the US side. This is also why the Hopi sales continue to happen, because there is very little coverage for, say, recentish American objects.) My own personal understanding is that the issue is further complicated for artefacts like these vs. says the Elgin marbles or other archaeological objects because many of them have been stolen by local residents or sold legally; some of these are from art collections from the mid-20th century, so before a lot of international laws were signed. I don't know of any country that prohibits all modern art objects from leaving, though I could be wrong, and I have no idea what Kenya's laws have been on these. There's at least one quote from a major dealer that his collections were lauded by Kenyan officials in the past; that there would be different feelings towards their preservation within the same country also wouldn't be different from other cases. That's why so many of these museums are choosing to repatriate on ethical grounds, not that there's a legal case-- because owning them isn't necessarily illegal. I really don't know a huge amount about anthropological repatriation with living tribes, but I'd love to hear more it.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:08 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

Related question: if a piece like this is sold legally, should there be any ethical reason for foreign museums to "repatriate" them? On the one hand, there's all sorts of coercion that could go on in a sale between, say, an important international art dealer and a local tribe member who doesn't understand the value of the piece. On the other hand, at a certain level it seems sort of paternalistic to assume that members of a Kenyan tribe can't sell whatever they want to whoever they want, for any reason they like.
posted by Sara C. at 7:16 PM on January 3

One of my local museums, the Blanton, has a bunch of replica Greek and Roman statuary from, IIRC, the nineteenth century, when artifacts didn't go around the world on tour the way they do now. I wonder whether that's going to end up being a modern solution to this kind of problem: repatriate the artifacts and create duplicates for display.
posted by immlass at 7:26 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

if a piece like this is sold legally, should there be any ethical reason for foreign museums to "repatriate" them?

The ethics of museums are changing. It used to be totally normal to buy and display Native American and other tribal bodies, for example; now not only are those remains increasingly being repatriated but also sacred objects (as in the Kenyan example here). They may well have been obtained legally at the time but ethics continue to shift and "dude, it was totally legit back in the day!" just doesn't always sound so convincing anymore.

In very general terms, I think it would be great if the people who produced the art or artifacts had some say in how and under what circumstances it could be displayed. The details are super complicated and I don't pretend to have the answers, but every time I read one of these articles I think it marks another incremental step in a good direction.

And yet it is incredibly complex -- as the article says, these objects are legal to buy and sell. Here is a 2006 article about vigango theft and repatriation -- this has been going on for some years, obviously. And a simple google search turns up dozens of them for sale -- these repatriations might be happening, but they are still being bought and sold (legally) on the open market.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:32 PM on January 3

How recent are most of the national laws about exporting art, artifacts, and items of cultural note?

Very. Jetlagaddict's note is great. There is a bit more in the Wikipedia article on "art repatriation" (cultural patrimony is another term used for the general concept that a culture in aggregate can have ownership of an object). This seems to be a nice tool for identifying the various bodies of law that may or may not pertain.

Is there less scrutiny of objects like this if they come to a museum as a gift?

Depends upon what museum, where, and when the gift was made, but the general answer for an accredited or otherwise legitimate North American museum is no, there's not less scrutiny. Today, the general desire is to have a squeaky clean collection that will not get you into the newspapers.

should there be any ethical reason for foreign museums to "repatriate" them

There are often very good ethical arguments - not least of which is that the objects are better understood by the people who are claiming them than by the museum, and having stronger relationships with those people can strengthen the knowledge of those objects and object categories and other cultural objects originating from that group. There is just no way to generalize about these cases - some may be thoroughly ethical transfers, while others placed one party or other at such a disadvantage that even a legal sale may not hold up to modern scrutiny. The significant principle in these deliberations is that they aren't among the dead, but among people who are alive now, who generally want to do the right thing. Each case is quite unique. I like what the curator of anthropology says about it, which sums up the general sentiment in the field:
“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.”
I think the crux of the vigongo issue rests on whether you believe this guy:
Mr. Wolfe stoutly defends collecting, selling and exhibiting the objects, saying he rescued them after they had spent their spiritual powers — been “deactivated,” as he puts it — and had been abandoned by their consecrators. He also said that Kenyan officials applauded his first presentation of vigango in the United States, at the Smithsonian Institution in 1979.
I wonder whether that's going to end up being a modern solution to this kind of problem: repatriate the artifacts and create duplicates for display.

With digitization there's a lot of talk about just making high-res 3D scans and keeping those available for study/research. Then any institution that wants to exhibit a replica can make a 3D print of it. This has already been started with things like Mayan steles.
posted by Miko at 7:36 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]

No, I'm aware of all that sort of thing.

But this seems like a distinct case. I mean, a human body is not a thing to be bought and sold, whether it was legal at the time or not. And if these had been "legally" acquired in Kenya under colonialism, or before there were any particular international laws about such things in place, well, that would be different.

But these vigango were given to the Denver Museum in 1990. It is currently not illegal to sell objects like vigango in Kenya, anyhow.

I get that they're sacred objects and that it seems a shame to treat them like crass commodities to ooh and aah over, but (from my read of the article) they were legally sold by people who had a right to sell them, and legally exported out of Kenya, all under laws that still stand today, and nobody is currently claiming them or asking for them to be returned. It seems vaguely paternalistic for some museum curator somewhere to just assume that the original seller must not have really wanted to sell, and that, surely, those poor beknighted tribespeople must want them back even though they're not actually asking for them back.
posted by Sara C. at 7:44 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

Note: if the vigango were stolen, then OF COURSE they should be returned whether specific local individuals are formally asking for them back or not.

I think ANY museum holding ANY item that was acquired under questionable circumstances, at any point in its provenance, should be LEGALLY required to return the stolen goods.
posted by Sara C. at 7:46 PM on January 3

After hunting around a little, it seems to me like the problem in this case is that the vigongo may never have entered the cash economy legitimately - that they entered as already stolen property, sold to dealers by people who didn't have the authority of ownership that would grant their right to sell.
In Search of Africa's Ancestral Statues: With growing populations, poor economies ("a holdover from colonialism, which was as recent as the early 1960s in most African countries"), and not enough land to farm, young Mijikenda men can't find work. "They're desperate. They need incomes. And some young men resort to stealing vigango, because there's a market for them in the West."Vigango are considered the art form of East Africa," says Udvardy, who estimates that there are at least 1,000 of these statues in existence, "but most Westerners fail to realize these objects are ritual artifacts of a living culture....

Since 2001, one of Giles's research assistants, a young Giriama man named John Mitsanze, has been playing the role of field detective. "In the course of trying to collect information on the thieves, John was told that sometimes they perform a kind of counter-ritual to offset the curse believed to be triggered by moving a kigango," Udvardy says. Mitsanze is documenting what he hears about stolen vigango and photographing existing statues. "That's our small, grassroots effort to stop the traffic in these particular statues."

Udvardy's next step is to trace the journey of Katana's vigango. "I'll be looking at the different people involved, from Katana and his family, to the thief, to the art dealer who sells vigango in the United States, to the collectors of vigango—many of whom are Hollywood celebrities—to the collector's accountants, to the museum curators who accept them as donations. I'll focus on the transformation in meaning of the objects through the different hands that have had the objects."

Of the roughly 360 vigango in American museums, Giles and Udvardy have traced 90 percent back to one American art dealer. "This particular dealer almost single-handedly created a market for these objects," Udvardy says. "He has done so despite the fact that he has spent time with the Gohu elders and has written a book about vigango, so he knows they should not be removed."
Looted Memorial Statues Returned to Kenyan Family: Most vigango are stolen by unemployed Mijikenda male youths and sold to shops and markets in the coastal cities and in the capital, Nairobi, which then sell them to Western dealers and collectors. Most of the vigango in the United States have been imported by a dealer based in southern California. This dealer has sold many of the vigango to private individuals, including several associated with the Hollywood film industry; these individuals often then donate them to museums.
Based on this research, yes, if these objects were held in my museum it would be considered seriously problematic and deserving of a repatriation discussion.
posted by Miko at 7:48 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

I think ANY museum holding ANY item that was acquired under questionable circumstances, at any point in its provenance, should be LEGALLY required to return the stolen goods.

A noble concept. The most difficult problem here is usually who to return them to? In the case of antiquities or objects from colonial societies, for instance, do we consider the nation-state currently occupying that piece of land to be culturally contiguous with the people who made the object? What about objects where we know only vaguely where they came from - for instance, we know what region, but not what island, village or clan? And, if anyone can be identified who has a claim to ownership, do they want the object? And, if they want them, are they capable of accepting them including any requirements they may place on their new owners for ceremonial treatment, care, security, etc? And, if they want them, are there other people contesting the claim because they also feel they have a right to the objects because of some period of ownership or ancestral or cultural connection?

The world's museums are really at a significant crossroads as law and ethics evolve. Conversations about cultural patrimony are fascinating, and sticky, and serious, but one thing they are definitely not at this stage of the game is cut-and-dried. There are no simple rules one can apply to all instances of objects in museums with unclear or questionable provenance. For one thing, most old museums have objects with almost no provenance other than the museum's having entered it in the collection record at some point. It's anyone's guess how the object transfer was made from an originating community to, say, a sea captain in Polynesia in 1810. Legal sale? Exploitation? Theft? Purchased as stolen property from someone not the owner? All possible. And, without knowing what community the object came from - as is true for so many objects in places like the Field, the AMNH, the Peabody Museum of Harvard, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Smithsonian - it is not at all easy to determine who they should go back to, in the absence of a governmental claim. One difficulty that plagues repatriation in New England, for instance, is objects from Native American burials made by communities who are no longer present, having culturally gone out of extinction. To whom should those things be repatriated - to Native communities who live in that region today? To descendants of the original communities who now have different cultural identities and usually live in the Midwest today?

There are a lot of terribly complex questions. I think we are moving into an era in which the ideal for museums is clear, legitimate ownership of objects and repatriation whenever clear title cannot be determined. But we will also be spending most of the coming century (or more) dealing with the vast majority of objects in museums which don't come with a clear and clean provenance, or any provenance to speak of at all - let alone dealing with the faction of people, some (though now a distinct minority) in the profession who reject all idea of cultural patrimony and will go to the death defending the idea that the entire material world is fair game for the Western encyclopedic museum. So there will be a lot of cases like this one, where there is no simple and clear cut legal principle that applies, but plenty of professional ethics that do, and we can only hope that ethics lead in the investigations and negotiations to follow.
posted by Miko at 8:02 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]

I mean, a human body is not a thing to be bought and sold, whether it was legal at the time or not.

This is obviously different than a rital object, but there is a legal market for human remains that is completely legitimate (along with a really nasty black market, and repatriation issues for certain areas.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:08 PM on January 3

This is obviously different than a rital object, but there is a legal market for human remains that is completely legitimate (along with a really nasty black market, and repatriation issues for certain areas.)

Skulls, skeletons, and individual bones available here.

I know I have seen articles alleging improprieties in the sourcing of modern skeleton parts, but it's certainly currently legal.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:13 PM on January 3

I think that objects with no provenance, where we don't have any useful origin details, and where nobody is asking for the return of the objects are not really up for discussion in the way that the vigango are.

But, as a contrast, a few years ago a bunch of Picasso drawings came onto the market which might have been gifts by Picasso to a contractor working on his house, or might have been stolen from the house by said contractor.

We know who Picasso was. We know he made these drawings. He has family members currently alive who might like to have them back. It should be very cut and dried that it's sketchy for any museum to acquire these potentially stolen drawings. (I'm not sure if any of them actually did end up in museums, but just as an example.)

Similarly, the case of stolen vigango. We know where vigango come from, and since they were acquired relatively recently it's likely that we can track down some reasonable group of people to give them back to. Doing so might be difficult, and the people might not even want them back. One could make a case for repatriating them to Kenya, as well. There are some grey areas here, but it's a fairly simple ethical case even if the practical details are hard to iron out.

On the opposite pole, you've got the Elgin Marbles. We know they were stolen, even if it was considered acceptable at the time. We know where they came from. There's a specific group asking for their return which has a pretty tight claim to them considering that the same group currently administers the place they were stolen from as a historical site. It's a pretty clear-cut case.
posted by Sara C. at 8:20 PM on January 3

I just worked with a colleague last semester on a presentation about human remains in museum collections, and learned a fascinating bunch of stuff. One was that there are some miserable problems in medical museums and medical college collections originating in the nineteenth century. In that era, doctors recieved cadavers through both legal and extralegal means, many of which would be illegal today. People did will their bodies "to science," but many were also purchased, both on record and under the table, from jails, workhouses, indigent hospitals, and places like that. Descendants today may not even know of the remains of relations in medical museums.

Then there is the run of human-body exhibitions that has occasioned much debate in the field - first Body Worlds, in 1996, and then the imitators it spawned. I was just reading about this last night in an article on sideshows and freakshows and how they relate to history museums, and can copy from it here:

"...In this exhibit there are more than 200 specimens, and 26 whole human bodies that have been prepared and posed in diverse pses. Though many of the bodies may have been obtained illegally or at the least unethically, the press reports on the exhibit, even those that were negative, served only to increase the number of visitors to museums. The success of Body Worlds is apparent in the number of exhibits that imitate the original exhibition: Bodies: The Exhibition, The Amazing Human Body, Body Exploration, and Bodies Revealed are just a few of the traveling ppular exhibits that are based on [Body Worlds]. While these are arguably more scientifically educational than the freakshows of the past, the exhibitions do exploit the bodies of hyuman beings, just as sideshows did throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." --Katie Stringer, "The Legacy of Dime Museums and the Freakshow: How the Past Impacts the Present," AASLH History News 68:4.

It would seem like we could draw a cut and dried rule "no human remains in museums," but that turns out to be surprisingly hard. Even if you reject these rather sensational exhibitions of human remains, even when they are totally legally obtained and owned, there are a lot of other edge cases that people usually take for granted or think are somehow less ethically significant - for instance, saints' reliquaries, of which every major world art museum has a few. These generally did and often still do contain the physical pieces of the saint's body. Egyptian mummies, which are among the most popular objects to be exhibited. Memento moriae, things created from the hair of a dead body, are common in Victoriana collections. Some cultural objects made by various people around the earth include the bones, hair or teeth of vanquished enemies (a particularly horrifying one in our presentation was basically a chamber pot made with the teeth of an enemy - the intent being pretty clear). Small human bones sometimes show up in jewelry or as tools. Ancient urns and cinerary boxes often contain incinerated remains. And some museums and historic sites contain entire tombs and are themselves graves. So implementing even this seemingly simple idea for a prohibition on collecting and exhibiting human remains brings with it some drastically impactful ramifications for specifics museums centered on these types of collections, and for the field as a whole.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]

I've always assumed that saints' reliquaries were just the reliquaries and not the actual relics. I just figured that when the Met acquired the neat little box "the toe of St. Lucy" was once displayed in, they probably ditched the toe.

It is suddenly very weird to think that there are still fingers and foreskins and spleens in all those pretty little boxes at The Cloisters.
posted by Sara C. at 8:38 PM on January 3

I don't think anyone is arguing with your stance on the vigongo, Sara C. The problem there doesn't seem to be finding someone to repatriate them to, but persuading museums to consider the case for repatriation given the context of the dealer's acquisition which is emerging research, and they wouldn't have known about before. I was merely trying to illustrate why not all objects in museums can be easily repatriated, and why the issues can rapidly become quite complex, so that a simple blanket principle rarely will cover all cases. That's why ethical paradigms need to take a prominent place in the negotations - law alone won't produce just outcomes.

The problem with the Elgin Marbles is that both sides would say their case is pretty clear-cut, and honestly both have some legitimate points in their favor. They are probably the most famous example of an object that changed hands under shifting political conditions at a time when our modern era of documentation and rule of international law was nascent, and everything rests on whether Elgin's firman entitled him to take as much as he did, and then also whether you consider the occupying Ottoman empire to have been a legitimate government entitled to sell cultural patrimony from a territory they had in their possession at that time. I have my opinion on this, as does everybody in the field, but it's not clear-cut at all. It's another case where the living have to do the best they can.

It's doubtful the UK will give them back in our lifetimes, though, regardless of the strength of the Greek case.
posted by Miko at 8:39 PM on January 3

I just figured that when the Met acquired the neat little box "the toe of St. Lucy" was once displayed in, they probably ditched the toe.

Sometimes they have been taken out, but often not. The contents are valuable for research as they were left, and they're basically inert decay-wise by now. Sometimes, too, the relic objects are fused or embedded in the object so taking it out would cause damage anyway.
posted by Miko at 8:42 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

No, I know. I didn't mean to come off as argumentative but to generate discussion of what is a very interesting topic to me (for real, not in a smarmy way).

Your posts have been incredibly thought-provoking and informative. Thanks for that. And especially thanks for not assuming I'm just being a gigantic asshole in this thread. I could talk about this stuff for days.
posted by Sara C. at 8:43 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

Oh, no, I didn't think so. It totally is a fascinating topic. Endlessly so. I gravitate to it a lot myself (obviously) in part just because this is where the interesting action is in the museum world. It's contentious and unsettled, but also awesome and emotionally really moving when stuff gets given back to its proper community/person. It's part of what you could imagine as sort of a global process of reconciliations for the pileup of wrongs in the past, on all sides.

This was a great piece on the Marbles that was in the Times when the Acropolis Museum opened up.
posted by Miko at 8:48 PM on January 3

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