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16.05.2010 Feature Article

Barbier-Mueller Museum Signs Agreement With Tanzania To Return Stolen Makonde Mask

Makonde MaskMakonde Mask

We reproduce below an ICOM Press Release on an agreement signed on 10 May 2010 between Tanzania and the Geneva Museum Barbier-Mueller on the return of a Makonde mask which had been stolen from the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam in 1984.

Readers should not be misled by the title of the agreement which suggests that this was a “donation” and thereby creating the impression that this is a sign of generosity on the part of the museum. The matter went before UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation. It is said in the press release that the issue came before the Committee because of misunderstanding.

Perhaps we should not worry too much about the formulation of the agreement in view of the concrete result achieved. We should congratulate the parties concerned and hope that the many other African artefacts which are alleged to have been illegitimately acquired will soon be subjects of agreement.(see “Let Others loot for you: looting of African Artefacts for Western Museums” http://www.modernghana.com “Recovering Nigeria's Terracotta” http://www.museum-security.org )

Kwame Opoku,11 May 2010

PRESS RELEASE
Paris, 10 May, 2010
Makonde Mask
Signing of an agreement for the donation of the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Geneva to the National Museum of Tanzania

Under the auspices of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the United Republic of Tanzania and the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Geneva have signed an agreement for the donation of the Makonde Mask to the National Museum of Tanzania.

The event took place on Monday 10 May in Paris, in the presence of ICOM Director General Mr Julien Anfruns; the Permanent Secretary and the Head of the Legal Unit of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism of Tanzania, Dr Donatius M. K. Kamamba and Mrs Caroline Mchome; co-funder of the Barbier-Mueller Museums, Mrs Monique Barbier-Mueller; and

Director General of the Barbier-Mueller Museums, Mrs Laurence Mattet.

The Barbier-Mueller Museum informed first the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in July 1990, the a Makonde Mask purchased in September 1985 in Paris, might have been removed from the Dar Es Salaam Museum, based on information provided by Prof. Enrico Castelli, of the University of Perugia in Italy.

Due to a misunderstanding, the Makonde Mask was one of the three cases reviewed by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation. The donation of the Makonde Mask is the successful outcome of more than 20 years of negotiations and efforts by the two parties involved as well as ICOM's good offices.

On this occasion, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism of the United Republic of Tanzania would like to express its gratitude to the Barbier-Mueller Museum for its handling of the case from the very beginning.

Historical overview of the Makonde Mask
In 1984, a Makonde Mask was stolen together with 16 other artefacts during a break-in at the National Museum of Tanzania, located in Dar Es Salaam. The theft was reported to all relevant authorities at national and international levels, including the Tanzanian police, INTERPOL and the International Council of Museums.

In 1990, an Italian professor of the University of Perugia informed the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, that a Makonde Mask in its collections might have been removed from the Dar Es Salaam Museum. The Barbier-Mueller Museum immediately transmitted the information to ICOM and reported that the object had been purchased in Paris in September 1985.

The Barbier-Mueller Museum initiated thereafter appropriate steps and proposals to try and facilitate a possible return of the Makonde Mask to Tanzania. In 2002 the Barbier-Mueller Museum formally indicated conditions under which it would be prepared to transfer the ownership of the Makonde Mask to the United Republic of Tanzania. Though the Director General of the National Museums of Tanzania highly appreciated the handling of the case by

the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the involved parties could not reach a compromise over the issue of ownership of the object.

In 2006 negotiations stopped after the United Republic of Tanzania filed a request for the return of the Makonde Mask with the Secretariat of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation. In reaction to Tanzania's action, the Barbier-Mueller Museum filed a formal and official complaint against the United Republic ofTanzania with the Federal Office of Culture of Switzerland.

Finally in August 2009 the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism of Tanzania informed the Barbier-Mueller Museum of its intent to accept the conditions proposed by the Swiss Museum in 2002.

A governmental delegation of Tanzania met the representatives of the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva on 6 November, 2009 to conduct good faith discussions and negotiations

which have paved the way for the donation of the Makonde Mask to the United Republic of Tanzania.

Description of the Makonde Mask

makonde mask


The item is an example of a “lipiko” mask, the most recent type of Makonde Mask, which is characterised by its realism and caricature features. Until the 1960s this type of helmet mask was worn during male initiation festivals by dancers that looked out through the mouth opening and attached their costume through a hole at the rim of the mask.

This Makonde Mask may represent a caricature of a Black convert to Islam with a strong and arrogant figure (emblematic of the conflicting relationships of the Makonde with the Moslem slave traders along the coast). The figure is depicted wearing a hat and with facial features of prominent lips, a powerful neck, a sharp jaw angle, a moustache and detailed carved nostrils.

The mask is made of soft, lightweight wood, which allowed the inside to be hollowed, wax and pigment. The mask's hair and moustache are made of human hair and it is 30.5 cm tall.

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2010

This author has authored 249 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwameOpoku

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Reproduction is authorised provided the author's permission is granted.

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