The Illinois State Museum has returned more than 30 stolen artifacts with ties to the Mijikenda peoples, who are native to modern-day Kenya, to the country’s network of national museums. The memorial statues, known as “vigango,” are considered spiritual objects commemorating deceased ancestors.
According to a press release from the state of Illinois, which oversees the museum, the 37 now-repatriated memorial artifacts were removed from Mijikenda villages in Kenya in the 1980s and circulated without official legal title among dealers and art collectors and eventually gifted to the museum as a larger gift of African art. Statues commemorating Kenyan elders were not meant to be moved, according to experts.
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At the time of the gift, museum officials were not aware that the works had been unlawfully removed from the Mijikenda villages in which they were originally installed. This new return by the Illinois State Museum is part of an ongoing repatriation effort to return vigango objects to Kenyan officials.
Brooke Morgan, a curator of anthropology at the Illinois State Museum, which has repatriated various cultural objects since 2006, is a member of a group of US representatives from other museums and universities that visited Nairobi this month to meet with Kenyan officials about repatriation efforts that involve National Museums of Kenya’s plans around preserving vigango objects.
In a statement, Morgan described the objects as “inalienable from the people who created them,” adding that “separating vigango from their rightful owners harms the spiritual well-being of the whole community.”