Maasai leaders visit British museums in attempt to decolonise collections

Seven delegates from Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania
Afroze Fatima Zaidi

Representatives from Maasai tribes have been visiting museums in the UK this January. The visit was organised as part of a collaborative project called Living Cultures at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. It forms part of a larger movement to decolonise museums by making them aware of their colonial history and how this can be addressed responsibly.

According to a press release from Living Cultures, the project:

is a partnership between Maasai representatives from Tanzania and Kenya, the Pitt Rivers Museum and InsightShare, an Oxford-based NGO that has worked for over 20 years with indigenous communities to enable them to better represent themselves on critical issues. For all, the partnership allows focus on self-determination and representation.

This visit is the third of its kind since the project began in 2017. Delegates comprise of seven Maasai representatives from Tanzania and Kenya. Over two weeks, they will have visited Pitt Rivers as well as the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Cambridge and London’s Horniman Museum.

Decolonisation of British museums

Pitt Rivers has been described as “one of the most important ethnological museums in the world”. Maasai activist Samwel Nangiria said while speaking at the museum in 2017:

Seeing the way Maasai sacred objects were displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum I felt shocked. We are a living culture, not a dead one, and we want to talk to the Museum about how they can change this. I believe that working together with the Pitt Rivers Museum and with our partners at InsightShare we can honour my community and present our real culture in the museum.

Yannick Ndoinyo, junior elder from Loliondo, Tanzania, shared the significance of a sacred artefact during a visit in 2018. He said the artefact was an heirloom that symbolises a father’s death and must be passed down through generations – “this is something that cannot be sold or given”. According to museum records, a colonial administrator had “donated” the artefact in 1904.

The 2020 visit, along with the Living Cultures project, could contribute towards addressing the colonial legacy of British museums. It’s also a step towards providing better representation for indigenous tribes and cultures.

Featured image via Grace Hutchison (L-R)  Amos Karino Leuka, Lemaron Ole Parit, Evelyn Paraboy Kanei, Samwel Nangiria, Yannick Ndoinyo, James Meipuki Ole Pumbun, Juliana Naini Mashati

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  • Show Comments
    1. Absolutely!


      Repatriate all of Africa’s and other continents their precious artefacts that we in our arrogant rampaging commercial grabbing empire-days stole, filched, hacked off from ancient temples and citadels countless ‘works of artistry’ that represented or were tokens of Africa’s societies steeped in a spirituality we can hardly bare to fathom for the potency Africa’s art has ingrained within each and every precious artefact as much ‘life and death’ as a Christian crucifix has. These precious works presently languish in sterile private halls or in UK public museums always pitiful, bereft of meaning, sucked dry of their spirituality stuck as they are in collector’s glass cabinets to be ignorantly ogled at or passed-by without so much as a curtsy or Hail Mary for their spiritual significance.


      And, let them breathe once more their proper history in the historic lands and societies they were crafted out of from in Africa.

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