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Fowler Museum at UCLA Repatriates Stolen Asante Artefacts

In a significant move towards restitution, the Fowler Museum at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) has repatriated seven handcrafted Asante artefacts to their rightful owners in Kumasi, Ghana. These artefacts, including pieces of elaborately worked gold, were taken during the Sagrenti War of 1874 by the British.

Formally handed over to the Asante royal family on Monday, the objects symbolize a return to their cultural origins after 150 years. Their repatriation follows a thorough investigation into the museum’s African art collection’s provenance, revealing their illicit acquisition during the notorious looting of the Ashante royal palace in Kumasi.

While these artefacts were part of a larger gift from the Wellcome Trust in 1965, considered foundational to the Fowler’s establishment, the museum’s director, Silvia Forni, emphasizes their custodial responsibility. “Even though we have legal title to these objects, we don’t own them,” says Forni, underscoring the museum’s ethical obligation to return cultural property to its community of origin.

Among the repatriated items are gold jewellery, ornaments, an ornamental chair known as asipim, and a ceremonial elephant tail whisk called sika mena. Erica P. Jones, the museum’s manager of curatorial affairs, notes the significance of the whisk, reserved for individuals of exceptionally high status.

The repatriation process was facilitated by Tufts University professor Kwasi Ampene, who served as a liaison with the Asante royal family. Last year, Jones traveled to Ghana to meet directly with King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, who requested the return of the artefacts in time for the 150th anniversary of the looting, coinciding with the king’s Silver Jubilee celebrations.

The Fowler Museum’s initiative aligns with a broader global discourse on the restitution of cultural artefacts, with recent announcements from institutions like the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum regarding the loan of objects taken from West Africa in the 19th century. Forni acknowledges the museum’s evolving role, stating, “We’re an accident of history, and we can change, just like the world around us changes, and we can do new work in this new world.”

Looking ahead, the Fowler Museum plans to digitally scan the repatriated artefacts and collaborate with Asante craftspeople to create replicas for display, ensuring their stories are shared and preserved for future generations.

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