Throughout the 1980s, vigango, sacred wooden memorial statues, were stolen from Kenya, sold to art dealers and eventually arrived at tourist shops and museums.
Now, as part of a continuing effort to repatriate these looted cultural artifacts, officials from the Illinois State Museum and other museums and universities will visit Nairobi this week for a ceremony to recognize the return of the vigango to the National Museums of Kenya.
Sometimes as tall as seven feet, the vigango were often erected in front of a homestead in memory of a male elder in the Mijikenda community who had died. The memorials were not meant to be moved.
“These items are sacred and inalienable from the people who created them,” Brooke Morgan, a curator of anthropology at the museum, said in a statement. “Separating vigango from their rightful owners harms the spiritual well-being of the whole community.”
Members of the community revere the statues and often connect misfortunes such as illness, drought and crop failure to their absence, said Linda Giles, a former anthropology professor at Illinois State University who has researched the Mijikenda, among other coastal communities.
Museums around the world still hold and exhibit stolen items, despite a UNESCO treaty in 1970 halting the illicit trade of cultural artifacts and a growing awareness of repatriation, which supports returning artifacts to their home countries.
However, as repatriation continues to be a point of discussion and as institutions that have not done so face increasing scrutiny, more are beginning what can be a lengthy process to return items.
The taking of artifacts is the beginning of an erasure of a country’s religion and culture, said Veronica Waweru, a lecturer in African studies at Yale and an archaeologist doing fieldwork in Kenya.
“If you don’t see something, you’re likely to forget about it,” Dr. Waweru said. “Culture has to be maintained. If it’s not being created and maintained, you lose it.”
These sacred connections are why curators like Dr. Morgan of the Illinois State Museum believe these artifacts in museums should be returned.
“We just don’t have the right to them,” said Dr. Morgan, who was part of the team that returned the vigango. “They represent a spirit.”
Even after museums decide to repatriate artifacts, they must cut though a great deal of red tape to do so, Dr. Morgan said. When Dr. Morgan began working at the Illinois State Museum in 2018, she was told it was a priority to return the statues.
However, the museum held off for a while because the recipients would face exorbitant fees. The artifacts would be taxed upon entering the country because they are considered art.
For guidance, Dr. Morgan said, the museum had looked to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which was already years into the process of returning about 30 vigango in its own collection. This would leave the recipient facing a $40,000 import tariff, the Colorado NPR station KUNC reported in 2020.
In June 2022, the Illinois museum returned 37 vigango after two years of planning and coordinating and after it was able to secure a much lower fee for the memorials, which were taxed as cultural artifacts instead of as art.
For now, the National Museums of Kenya will hold the statues because it’s unclear who specifically owns them, Dr. Morgan said. The National Museums of Kenya did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Pinpointing who the artifacts belonged to before they were taken is often difficult, Dr. Giles said.
In 2003, Dr. Giles and Monica Udvardy, a researcher at the University of Kentucky, had tracked more than 300 vigango to American museums, Dr. Giles said. More have been found since then.
Dr. Giles said she was encouraged to see more museums return artifacts to their home countries.
“It takes a while, but it’s catching wind,” she said. “Museums are deciding they shouldn’t have these.”