Helping to Restore Stolen African Works

By Kim Thurler, Tufts Now

Two years ago, Professor of Music Kwasi Ampene received an out-of-the blue email from the curator of African art at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Would Ampene, a renowned expert on the music and culture of the Asante kingdom of West Africa, help the museum return to the kingdom antiquities stolen by the British during the 19th-century Anglo-Asante wars?

The seven looted objects included gold decorations for the ankles, arms, and neck, a gold-embellished elephant tail whisk, and a chair of wood and leather with metallic decorations. Years of research and his own Ghanaian heritage had given Ampene a deep understanding of the importance of such objects in what he terms the “history, heart, and soul” of the Asante.

Nevertheless, he approached with care. “Given the historical dimension and emotions surrounding violence and pillage associated with European colonization in Africa, I was initially cautious and measured in my response,” says Ampene. “I told myself, ‘This could be something or it could be nothing.’”

His review of documents and in-person examination of the items at the Fowler Museum convinced Ampene that this was indeed something. The objects were exquisitely crafted, likely by royal artisans, and their history was well-documented. British soldiers had stolen some of the artifacts in 1874 during the sacking of the palace in Kumase, the kingdom’s ancient capital. Others were among the 50,000 ounces of gold demanded by the British government in the treaty ending the wars. The Fowler Museum and UCLA were fully committed to returning all the precious artifacts to the kingdom, no strings attached.

Ampene agreed to assist. To begin the complex repatriation process, in June 2023, he met with the kingdom’s ruler, or Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, at the Manhyia Palace in Kumase, and shortly thereafter he arranged a meeting at the palace for Fowler Museum representatives.

Years before Ampene had forged a relationship with the king and his staff when he was researching the work of Nana Afua Abasa, a singer and composer of Nnwonkoro songs, who frequently performed at the palace before her death in 2000. Ampene returns each summer to study the palace’s thousands of antiquities and update the king and his staff on his findings.

Otumfuo Osei Tutu II confirmed Ampene’s conclusions regarding the artifacts’ authenticity and history. He also said that their timely return would be ideal since it would coincide with an event already planned for February 2024, to commemorate the battle in which the palace was demolished.

That was only seven months away.

The Opportunity for a ‘Museum in Motion’

It was a tight timeframe to complete the complexities of deaccession and repatriation of the artifacts, a process that would eventually involve U.S. and Ghanaian government agencies as well as the kingdom, museum, UCLA, and the university’s Board of Regents.

Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges was obtaining clearance to export the elephant tail whisk, because of the strict restrictions on trade in elephant objects. “That took forever,” says Ampene. Permission came through just a couple of days before the artifacts, packed in special protective cases, were to be flown from Los Angeles to Accra, the capital of Ghana. This was “very, very, very, very” nerve-wracking, Ampene recalls.

Packed in special protective crates, the artifacts arrived safely in Accra on February 1. They were kept in a secret location for several days before making the 156-mile drive to Kumase under the protection of armed security.

On Monday, February 5, at a private meeting in the palace, the cases were opened, and the artifacts were presented to the king and his staff. The mood was one of joy and mutual respect, Ampene recalls.

At the meeting’s conclusion, Ampene felt a huge wave of relief. “I hadn’t slept that whole weekend,” he says. “The first thing I did afterwards was drink a glass of wine.”

The day-long commemoration that followed on Thursday, February 8, was marked by music, dancing, and singing, with every detail, from clothing to umbrellas to swords encased in gold, contributing to telling the Asante kingdom’s proud story. The 5,000 guests gathered on the palace grounds included chiefs of other kingdoms, the current vice-president of Ghana and two past presidents, and diplomats.

The artifacts recently returned by the Fowler Museum will be shown in the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumase. However, Ampene believes that museums should not be a prerequisite for repatriation of stolen antiquities.

“These items are part of our culture and our identity. They have practical uses for us, they have spiritual uses, they reinforce our traditional political systems, our philosophy, our literature. We know what to do with them,” he says. “They don’t need to be in a museum. When we bring them out at a festival, that’s our museum in motion.”

The tradition of interconnectedness that characterizes the arts in Africa permeates Ampene’s scholarship and his journey as an ethnomusicologist. “Music is part of a constellation of the arts. Drama, poetry, visual arts, all come together in a single organic whole,” he says.

This perspective resonates among his students, says Ampene, who chairs the music department in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts and currently teaches a course on the musical arts of Africa.

The artifacts’ return played out against an intense and widening global conversation about return of treasures stolen by colonizing powers. Just a few weeks earlier, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum had said they would “loan” back to the Asante kingdom some artifacts stolen during colonization. That approach is abhorrent to Ampene. “We must not reward theft,” he says. “In contrast, UCLA showed the whole world what can and should be done. We now have a model to do it the right way.”

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