British Museum returns African treasures for Kenyan exhibition

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The Independent Online

When the Kenyan curator Kiprop Lagat was invited in to the British Museum this year, he was given free rein to peruse all the 12,000 treasures in its vast eastern Africa collections.

Now, in a groundbreaking deal which could resolve decades of bickering over Britain's colonial plundering, 140 of those items are going back to Africa for the first time for a special exhibition which will open in Nairobi in the spring.

Visitors to the Kenyan show will get the chance to see wooden sculptures, silver and beaded jewellery and circumcision masks thousands of miles from their "home" in London - but much closer to the communities that made them.

"There are things here I hadn't seen before, things that were collected in Kenya," Mr Lagat said at the British Museum yesterday. "It was very exciting."

The unprecedented collaboration, announced yesterday, between the National Museums of Kenya and the British Museum, sees the British institution bidding to make its claim to be the treasure store of the world a practical reality.

Neil MacGregor, the museum's director, said: "We hope it will be a model for the future. The British Museum is committed to developing these kinds of collaborations across the world to generate a deeper understanding of a global citizenship."

With increasing numbers of claims for the restitution of cultural objects to the Third World, the museum has been rethinking its role to emphasise that it holds such heritage in trust. The new approach means there will be more loans and exhibitions, as well as training programmes for curators and support for conservation and research.

A conference for museum professionals from across sub-Saharan Africa will take place in Mombasa next week with backing from the British Council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which have pledged a total of £1m between them towards the African initiative.

Dr Farah Idle, director general of the National Museums of Kenya, said the deal was "an important stepping stone" which would help build a sustainable museum sector in Africa. "Rather than view the collections as belonging to one institution, the museum community should instead consider them as global heritage. This is the future for collaboration." The exhibition, Hazina - Traditions, Trade and Transitions in Eastern Africa, was "greatly awaited" in Nairobi, he added.

Mr Lagat explained that hazina is a Swahili word for treasures, encapsulating ideas of beauty and value. "In this context, it denotes the rich cultural traditions of the people of eastern Africa," he said.

The exhibition will explore themes such as trade, leadership and contemporary culture when it opens in March. For instance, only when the Akamba people of Kenya fought alongside the Zaramo people of Tanzania in the First World War, did they learn the skill of figurative carving for which they are now well known. The exhibition is set to be followed by similar shows in Ethiopia and Mali.

Plans are underway for an exhibition with the National Museum of Ethiopia to celebrate the Ethiopia Millennium in 2007-08. The British Museum is also working with Mali on plans for an exhibition on gold in West Africa. And a show exploring Asante funerary practices is being planned with the National Museum of Ghana.