By Miranda Bannister
On July 3, 2019, a collection of Kenyan vigango that resided for decades at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science reached its final stop in a long journey home. The process of returning the vigango to their original Mijikendan community began in 2008 when the Denver museum contacted the Kenyan government, suspecting the collection’s questionable provenance. In doing so, the Denver museum joined the ranks of several American institutions that are going beyond what is demanded of them by international guidelines, state, and federal laws to handle their existing collections ethically.
In 2008, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science became suspicious about the provenance of the vigango, donated in 1990 by actor Gene Hackman and film producer Art Linson. Subsequently, it contacted the Kenyan government to initiate conversations about the return of the objects, which function as sacred memorials to the elders in the Mijikenda community of Kenya. The Denver museum relied upon the Sister Cities Program and the Denver city government to negotiate the return of the objects with Alex Ole Magelo, the Nairobi City County Assembly Speaker. Following five years of negotiations, the parties reached an agreement to transfer the artifacts to the National Museums of Kenya for temporary safekeeping before their ultimate return to the Mijikenda.
However, the Denver museum faced an unforeseen roadblock in 2014 when the vigango entered Kenya. The museum encountered an unexpected tariff of roughly 47,000 USD at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Kenya. As a result, the pieces were sitting in storage at the airport for the past five years, until this July. California State University, Fullerton encountered the same challenge in 2014, though its vigango have also reached their destination since then.
The Legal Status of the Vigango
While the vigango finally found their way home, no laws compelled the Denver museum to return the objects. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the museum, explained, “There is no legal instrument or international treaty that requires us to return them. This is not about the law; it’s about ethics.”
A debate still rages over the legal status of the objects, as many of the vigango were “sold” by individuals in the Mijikenda community who had questionable rights to the objects. Other pieces were looted. However, the Denver museum argues that vigango are the communal property of the Mijikenda community. Therefore, no Mijikenda individual has the legal right to sell them. Colwell-Chanthaphonh explains, “these objects are communally owned and deeply sacred to the Mijikenda community of Kenya.”
Many other museums resist this interpretation. It is estimated that roughly 400 vigango are still held in the United States, across at least 21 different museums.
Disregarding the uncertainty of the legal status of vigango, the Denver museum decided to return the objects as a gesture of good will. In late 2013, Colwell-Chanthaphonh said he hoped the return would “build relationships across the globe that make a difference in all of our communities.”
Furthermore, the Denver Museum relinquished some of its rights under a 1970 UNESCO Convention on stolen art. UNESCO’s “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property,” signed November 14, 1970, states that “at the request of the State Party of origin, [museums are required] to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention. And that in both States. Concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property.”
The museum acquired these objects in 1990, 18 years after this Convention took effect. As a result, the objects could have been subject to return. However, the state party of origin, Kenya, did not approach the museum before the museum initiated their return. Nor did the museum demand compensation, as the Convention states is its right.
It is notable that the Denver museum failed to heed guidelines on due diligence and provenance from UNESCO, as well as the International Council of Museums, of which the Denver Museum is a member, when it originally acquired the objects in 1990. The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, adopted unanimously in 1986, sets what it calls “minimum standards” for due diligence. It states, “Due diligence [regarding provenance] should establish the full history of the item since discovery or production.” The Denver museum did not acquire full histories on the vigango, but ICOM and UNESCO lack enforcement mechanisms for these standards.
Several other museums have also distinguished themselves in recent years through a renewed attention to the origins of their cultural objects. As with the Denver museum, this regard for provenance extends not only to the acquisition of new objects, but to the review of existing collections of African art.
Similar to the Denver museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) has never encountered restitution claims from any African state or entity over its large collection of African art. Nevertheless, it established a Cultural Property Working Group that will be responsible for reviewing the museum’s procedures—past and present—regarding provenance. The goal is to ensure that the museum obeys “not only the letter but also the spirit of the law,” according to Kevin Tervala, the associate curator of African art at the museum. Tervala further hopes that this work will “reinforce the public trust in art museums as ethical and moral institutions.”
The Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles faces a similar predicament as the BMA, since it possesses a large collection of African art, much of which lacks sufficient “collection information.” However, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation donated 600,000 USD to the museum for the purposes of studying 7,000 African artifacts donated to the museum in 1965 by Sir Henry Wellcome. Through this project, researchers at the museum are seeking to understand the extent to which “reconstruction of provenance can be enhanced by both comparative ethnographic research as well as scientific materials analysis.” In other words, the museum is digging for answers that others might avoid.
Like the Denver museum, these institutions have gone beyond what is legally required of them to investigate the provenance of cultural objects. Many others may find themselves increasingly compelled to follow suit, as public concern over cultural theft grows in the coming years.