Repatriation and Preservation Spring 2014

Preservation of Heritage last year in Mali
By Derek Fincham on  January 7, 2014 — 1 Comment
The footlockers used to transport the manuscripts out of Bamako
Joshua Hammer has done some terrific reporting on the effort to preserve medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu last year:
At the time Haidara also had no idea if the militants knew how many manuscripts were in Timbuktu or how valuable they were. But quietly, determined not to attract attention, he laid contingency plans. With funds that Haidara’s library association already had on hand from foreign donors, he began purchasing footlockers in the markets of Timbuktu and Mopti, and delivered them, two or three at a time, to the city’s 40 libraries. During the day, behind closed doors, Haidara and his assistants packed the manuscripts into the chests. Then, in the dead of night, when the militants slept, mule carts transported the chests to safe houses scattered around the city. Over three months, they bought, distributed and packed nearly 2,500 footlockers.

Joshua Hammer, The Race to Save Mali’s Priceless Artifacts, Smithsonian magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Race-to-Save-Malis-Priceless-Artifacts-236271361.html

The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project

Timbuktu has often been invoked as a symbol of the most distant place on Earth, as a mysterious and exotic, but unreachable, attraction. Yet, it is a real city with a history.
Indeed, it has a rich and diverse heritage and a fascinating past. The city and its desert environs are an archive of handwritten texts in Arabic and in African languages in the Arabic script, produced between the 13th and the 20th centuries. The manuscript libraries of Timbuktu are significant repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. Given the large number of manuscript collections it is surprising that Timbuktu as an archive remains largely unknown and under-used. Timbuktu’s manuscript collections deserve close study. It is a significant starting-point for reflecting on Africa’s written traditions.
Recognising its significance as a site of African architecture and of its scholarly past, Unesco declared Timbuktu a World Heritage Site in 1990.
A South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was officially launched in 2003 and a major achievement of this project was the new library-archive building, which was inaugurated in Timbuktu in January 2009.
The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is dedicated to research various aspects of writing and reading the handwritten works of Timbuktu and beyond. Training young researchers is an integral part of its work.


Zuni Ask Europe to Return Sacred Art

PARIS — Octavius Seowtewa, an elder of the Native American Zuni tribe from New Mexico, was sitting in a Paris cafe late last month, scrolling through his iPhone pictures of Ahayuda, carved and decorated wooden poles that are considered sacred to the Zuni. They were taken at his recent meetings with representatives of major European museums, whom he is hoping he can persuade to return the artifacts.
Mr. Seowtewa, who exudes a quiet persistence and was dressed that day in a black leather blazer
, dark slacks and a button-down shirt, acknowledged that he hadn’t had much luck in his meetings at the Musée du Quai Branly here or at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, among others. But he said he was just getting started.
Since 1978, the Zuni have been more proactive than other Native American tribes in reclaiming ceremonial objects: in their case, more than 100 Ahayuda, also called war gods, from institutions and collections in the United States. The Zuni have taken advantage of federal legislation that requires all United States institutions to return objects considered sacred by Native Americans to individual tribes or risk losing federal funding. But those laws do not apply in Europe. Here, the Zuni case is a moral one. “That’s all there is,” Mr. Seowtewa said. “We believe if you listen to us about the power these objects have to our community, that these are exemplars of sacred objects, of communally owned objects,” then museums will consider sending them back, he added.
Photo

 Mr. Seowtewa said the Zuni wanted back only the Ahayuda and are not asking for other artifacts, including pottery and beads.
But museum experts say that some European museums are concerned that sending objects back, especially if they were bought by museums from private owners, would set an unwelcome precedent that could call into question the legitimacy of other works in their collections: from artifacts acquired from Africa and Asia to even the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, whose return Greece has formally requested several times. Each year, on the winter solstice, the Zuni make two Ahayuda to protect the tribe from harm and to promote fertility. Only the tribe’s special Bow priests are allowed to touch the Ahayuda, which are communally owned, Mr. Seowtewa said, so any that left the Zuni Pueblo over the years, by definition, left illegally.

There are hundreds of Ahayuda extant; they are also made whenever a new Bow priest is initiated, which hasn’t happened in decades. But Mr. Seowtewa said it was impossible to determine when any particular statue had been made or when it had gone missing, because the Ahayuda had been secreted away for centuries, since the tribe’s first contact with Europeans.
While some European museums have sent back a few individual items from their Native American collections to various tribes over the years — as well as human remains, which are governed by different laws — the Zuni are the first tribe to seek the return of objects from so many museums at once in a proactive way.
“My hope is that what we started in the States, being the first tribe to repatriate,” will continue in Europe, Mr. Seowtewa said.
In a separate case last year, the Annenberg Foundation bought 24 items considered sacred to the Hopi Native American tribe at a private auction in Paris for $530,000, in order to return them. That sale was orchestrated with the help of the United States State Department, which has said it is fully supportive of the Zuni quest to reclaim their Ahayuda. But these cases of repatriation are never simple.

“It’s a culture clash, of museum culture and Zuni culture,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who has been working with the Zuni tribe on repatriation issues since 2002 and secured grant funding for the European trip, on which he accompanied Mr. Seowtewa.