Kenya tells museums: give our history back

Smithsonian and British Museum among institutions facing Nairobi's demand for repatriation of nationally important artefacts
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Kenya is demanding the return of more than 2,000 historical artefacts currently on display in the British Museum, claiming they were taken during the country's colonial period. Skulls, spears and fossils are among the items that it wants back.

Officials in Nairobi are beginning to compile lists of objects held abroad that are considered of significant national importance. Apart from those at the British Museum, they are tracking down thousands of other items held by US museums and in private collections around the world. As many as 10,000 could be earmarked for repatriation, according to Kenyan museum officials. Kenya's President, Mwai Kibaki, said: "These are crucial aspects of our historical and cultural heritage, and every effort must be made to bring them back."

Among the wanted exhibits are the so-called Maneaters of Tsavo, a pair of lions (now stuffed), which allegedly ate up to 140 people working on the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway in the late 1890s. The lions' exploits were later immortalised in a book and a film, The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Val Kilmer. They are now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, which has, so far, been reluctant to let one of its most popular exhibits go.

"They are part of our heritage," said Idle Omar Farah, director general of Kenya's National Museums, "but the Field Museum say they bought them legally... We are following a diplomatic route, which we hope will be successful." His officials will compile an inventory of every item which comes from Kenya before deciding which are deemed to be of national importance.

Previous attempts to argue for the return of exhibits were hampered by the lack of suitable facilities in Kenya. Following the opening last month of a new £6m EU-funded museum, however, Kenyan heritage officials believe they have the ability to look after the most fragile objects.

All the same, most objects would stay where they are, Mr Farah said. "The blanket return of objects to their home countries would discourage cultural tourism," he added. "We want people in Britain to see Kenyan artefacts at their own museums – but the most important ones must come home."

The remains of Koitalel arap Samoei, seen by many in Kenya as the country's first freedom fighter, fall into the latter category. A leader of the Nandi tribe, which hails from Eldoret, Samoei fought the British in the late 1890s and the early part of the 20th century. He was eventually killed by a British soldier, Richard Meinertzhagen, who took back to Britain three wooden staffs Samoei had been carrying. Meinertzhagen's son returned them in 2006, but Samoei's skull, lion-skin cape and headgear are still missing.

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