[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye (Critical.Caribbean.Art) for bringing this item to our attention.] According to The Guardian’s Mark Brown, Jamaican Minister of Culture Olivia Grange has demanded that the British Museum repatriate objects in its collection that were taken to England when the island was a colony.
[. . .] The culture minister, Olivia Grange, wants the museum to return artefacts including a 500-year-old carved wooden figure thought to represent Boiyanel, a rain god; and a carved figure of a bird-man spirit found in a cave in 1792. The demand adds to a growing debate over whether institutions such as the British Museum should hold on to objects culturally significant to their country of origin.
Grange made her demands in the Jamaican parliament last week. The Jamaica Gleaner reported her as saying the artefacts were taken during early archeological digs when the island was still a British colony. She said the pieces were made by the Taíno, the indigenous people of the Caribbean encountered by the 15th-century western explorers. “They are not even on display,” Grange said. “They are priceless, they are significant to the story of Jamaica and they belong to the people of Jamaica.” She said ministers were working with the National Commission on Reparations, a group established in 2009, to have them returned.
Taíno objects are in a number of European and north American collections. The British Museum artefacts arrived in the early 20th century from a collection built up by William Ockleford Oldman.
A spokesperson for the museum said it had not received any official communication from Jamaica’s culture ministry. “Two Taíno objects, a stool and a standing figure have been on public display in the Enlightenment gallery since 2009,” the spokesperson said. “Taíno objects in the collection have been lent extensively to India, Japan, Spain, France, Singapore and the Horniman Museum in London. The Taíno ritual seat was part of the A History of the World Tour which has been seen by more than a million people at multiple venues from 2014-18. “The British Museum has a number of ongoing collaborative research projects with colleagues and island governments in the Caribbean.”
The issue of repatriating objects is one of the most pressing debates in the museum world and was given extra impetus by a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, published in late 2018.
The report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy recommended full restitution of objects and artworks taken without consent from their countries of origin.
As well as Jamaica’s request, Greece wants the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles and Ethiopia wants objects taken during the Battle of Maqdala. Talks are ongoing for some of the spectacular Benin Bronzes to be loaned to a new cultural hub in Benin City, Nigeria.
The debate arouses strong passions. The historian David Olusoga has talked of “a special version of Supermarket Sweep where every country is given a huge shopping trolley and two minutes in the British Museum.”