Restitution and Colonial Anthropological Knowledge in Ghana

With a focus on colonial Archives and Collections in Germany and United Kingdom

By William Nsuiban Gmayi

Issues of restitution, repatriation and repair dominate contemporary debates relating to anthropological, world art and world cultures museums and collections.

As part of a wider call to decolonise institutions of knowledge production such as museums, archives and universities, questions around African collections in European museums were brought to the foreground in a speech by the French President Emmanuel Macron in Burkina Faso in 2017 in which a commitment was made to restitute African artifacts and artworks held in French institutions.

Macron subsequently commissioned Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy to prepare a report on the issue, which has had a huge impact in the museum sector globally.

The case of the ‘Benin Bronzes’ looted in the 1897 British Punitive Expedition has become a cause célèbre in museum restitution internationally, while royal regalia and treasures looted during the British attack on Kumasi, in present-day Ghana, in 1874 is another prominent case.

The ‘Sarr-Savoy Report’ seeks to extend the discussion of museum restitution beyond the return of objects seized during military expeditions, considering other acquisition practices ‘born from an era of violence’, including missionary collecting and what they characterise as ‘scientific “raids”’ (2018: 54).

The terms of this broader decolonial agenda are, however, being shaped by the most notorious incidents of looting in contexts of unequivocal violence in military conquests, rather than more equivocal circumstances in which the majority of ‘ethnographic objects’ were acquired during the colonial era.

The agenda is also being determined by intellectuals, activists and representatives of national institutions who are not necessarily ‘closest’ to the cultural heritage in question.

In Ghana, for example, policy around restitution matters is strongly influenced by a small number of political and academic actors, who have diverse personal stakes in the issue. Meanwhile, the voices of community members whose cultural heritage is reflected in the collections are unheard or ignored.

My proposed PhD research project seeks to engage with these important restitution debates from a specifically Ghanaian perspective by decentring the focus on political/intellectual actors on the one hand, and treasures looted in the context of military expeditions on the other.

The objective of the research is, instead, to understand the wider range of values and affordances associated with materials assembled in the context of colonial anthropological investigations for different ‘communities of knowledge’ in Ghana. To explore this, the case study of the Government Anthropologist Robert Sutherland Rattray (1881-1938) will provide the focus of the research.

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The ethnographic archive of Rattray is chosen because; Rattray was both a colonial administrator and a trained anthropologist. He entered the colonial service initially in British Central Africa in 1902, transferring to the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) in 1907.

He was one of the early students of the anthropology diploma at Oxford, matriculating in 1909 and graduating in 1914. Following the First World War, where he served in German Togoland and rose to the rank of Captain, Rattray was appointed as a Special Commissioner to head a new Anthropological Department in the Ashanti Crown Colony. Rattray’s anthropological work was therefore unquestionably entangled in the politics of colonial governance, which enables us to examine the ambiguities and tensions between these positionalities.