Nearly 40 wooden funerary statues recently made it back to Kenya after being taken from Mijikenda villages’ sacred sites more than four decades ago. The Illinois State Museum announced last week that it had completed its transfer of the artifacts, which are called vigango. Mijikenda communities erected the statues to serve as a spiritual connection to, and memorial for, male elders who had passed. They were not meant to be moved.
Museums across the world — but particularly in countries with long histories of colonizing exploitation — should return objects that were stolen or otherwise acquired using coercion to their original communities. These days, that’s not exactly a hot take. But it took a long time to reach that point, and some major institutions (cough, the British Museum, cough) have remained steadfastly against returning anything at all.
When I read about the Illinois State Museum’s repatriation of its vigango collection, it surprised me to learn that the process can take years of work — even when museum leaders and employees are completely supportive. As it turns out, transferring valuable artifacts internationally requires cutting through a mountain of red tape. The Illinois State Museum had been seeking to return the vigango since at least 2018.
Even though it wasn’t easy, the Illinois State Museum still made the transfer happen — because it was the right thing to do.
The Smithsonian Institute, which operates 21 museums and holds over 155 million unique objects, adopted a new “ethical returns” policy in May 2022 that authorizes museums to repatriate stolen objects. So far, the Institute has returned one collection, its infamous Benin Bronzes.
The 21 Smithsonian museums (not counting the Zoo) and its 2020 revenue totaled over $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, the Illinois State Museum’s revenue that year came out to less than a million. My point: If this state museum system can manage it, the Smithsonian truly has no excuse.
I know these transfers take time, and the Smithsonian officially changed its policy just a year ago. But personally, I’m tapping my foot and checking the clock. They’re about a hundred years late already.