A necklace, an ornamental chair and an elephant tail whisk are among seven royal objects the Fowler Museum at UCLA today permanently and voluntarily returned to the Asante kingdom in the Asante region of Ghana, where they originated.
The objects were personally handed over by representatives of the museum to Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, the Asante king, in Ghana. The date, Feb. 5, 2024, has particular significance — it marks the 150th anniversary of the 1874 sacking of the Asante city of Kumasi by British colonial troops, during which four of the returned objects were looted.
The other three items were part of an indemnity payment made by the Asante kingdom to the British after the 1874 Treaty of Fomena, according to the Fowler Museum, which is dedicated to global arts and cultures, with an emphasis on Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Indigenous Americas.
In all, the returned objects include the elephant tail whisk, or sika mena; two royal stool ornaments; a gorget (royal necklace) or stool ornament; two strands of beads used as bracelets or anklets; and an ornamental chair known as an asipim. The items, donated to the Fowler by the Wellcome Trust, have been part of the museum’s collections since 1965.
This historic event — led by Silvia Forni, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum; Erica P. Jones, the museum’s senior curator of African arts and manager of curatorial affairs; and Rachel Raynor, director of registration and collections management for the museum — marks a significant milestone in the Fowler's long history of restitution as its first international return.
“We are globally shifting away from the idea of museums as unquestionable repositories of art, as collecting institutions entitled to own and interpret art based primarily on scholarly expertise, to the idea of museums as custodians with ethical responsibility for the collection and towards the communities of origin of these collections,” Forni said.
Recently, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London announced that gold and silver treasure in their collections that had been looted from the Asante kingdom by the British army would be lent to the kingdom in a six-year deal.
The Fowler Museum, however, has imposed no conditions on the returned objects. Whether they are installed in a museum, placed in the palace treasury or used in public celebrations is entirely up to their stewards. While the returned items have spent the last 60 years as museum objects, they were once functional objects and could return to that role in ceremonial settings, Jones said. The Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, for example, holds many objects with such dual functions, and Fowler staff are excited to see how the Asante king and future stewards choose to use and display these objects.
“We are aware that there is a great deal of research required to gain a better understanding of the provenance of much of our collection,” Jones said. “In the case of pieces that were violently or coercively taken from their original owners or communities, it is our ethical responsibility to do what we can to return those objects. It is a process that will occupy generations of Fowler staff, but it is something that we are unwavering in our commitment to accomplish.”
The Fowler, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, has been a leader in repatriation to Native American tribal communities; the museum has returned nearly its entire collection of Native remains and archeological artifacts to tribes in California, Arizona, Hawaii and Utah.
Read the full press release and view more images at the Fowler Museum wesite (PDF).