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  • Louise Wagon

British museum donates 245 cows to Maasai families

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

The Oxford Museum sends cows to Maasai families to compensate for objects stolen during colonial times.

Maasai in front of the remains of their ancestors
Maasai representatives have visited Pitt Rivers on several occasions to advise on the 188 Maasai objects held by the museum. © John Cairns

Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum has decided to compensate for the loss of historical and cultural artifacts from the Maasai, an indigenous community in Kenya and Tanzania, by giving them cows. This "symbolic gift" aims to establish equitable relations with the indigenous peoples whose heritage is preserved in the museum.

A total of 245 cows were given to five Maasai families, worth 6.73 million Kenyan shillings (42,000 euros). The cows were presented at several ceremonies between June 26 and July 5. The Sululu and Mpaima families received 98 cows at a ceremony in Loita, south-west of Nairobi, near the Tanzanian border.

It all began in  2017, when a Maasai human rights activist, Samwel Nangiria, visited the Pitt Rivers Museum and discovered "culturally sensitive" family objects in the collection. Of the 188 objects attributed to the Maasai community, five posed cultural problems and should never have been borrowed, sold or given away, according to Maasai custom.

They include a necklace and bracelet handed down from father to son, an earring and head ornament worn by young girls after circumcision, and a neck ornament worn by married women.

Five objects of concern to the Maasai
Five objects held by the Pitt Rivers Museum cause concern among the Maasai

"The absence of these objects in a family is considered bad luck, so their presence in the museum continues to prejudice descendants," said Pitt Rivers. "The museum subsequently took advice from traditional Maasai elders and religious leaders to find solutions regarding the conservation of the objects."

"These [five] objects have never been publicly exhibited or studied, probably due to limited historical documentation and lack of scholarly interest in Maasai collections," says Pitt Rivers.

Samwel Nangiria's visit in 2017 led to the creation of the Maasai Living Cultures Project; a collaborative project between representatives of the Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai community and Pitt Rivers, aimed at building trust and addressing concerns about the representation of Maasai culture in museums. The project is supported by InsightShare, an Oxford-based participatory video creation NGO, which facilitates communication and documentation.

The project has also led to the creation of the Pan-African Living Cultures Alliance (PALCA), a regional network enabling more communities to document their knowledge systems, cultural practices, crafts and languages. Other museums have joined Living Cultures since 2020, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge, the Horniman Museum in London, and since 2023, the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading.

The Pitt Rivers Museum stressed that no claim had been made for the objects, but that it would "follow established university procedures" if Maasai families claimed them.


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