'Stolen' treasures better off in the West, says African curator By Mike Pflanz in Nairobi (Filed: 13/04/2006) Antiquities "looted" during the colonial era are better off in western collections than being returned to Africa, according to a Kenyan curator overseeing an exhibition of artefacts loaned to Nairobi by the British Museum. Governments in Africa and other former colonies have long demanded that Europe hands back boatloads of relics plundered by explorers, anthropologists, missionaries and others before and during colonisation. But facilities to care for precious objects that may otherwise be left to rot are far better among the world's great museum houses than those in Africa, Kiprop Lagat said yesterday. Mr Lagat, 35, is running a six-month exhibition of 140 items loaned from among the British Museum's store of 12,000 east African relics, most of which are in storage. The curators have chosen artefacts from eight countries and dating from 1672 to 2002. It is the first time that east African objects held in any major European collection have been displayed in Africa. Their arrival has again stirred the debate over restitution of antiquities making up key aspects of Africa's cultural heritage that are never viewed by Africans. "Western museums have better facilities and the items are better taken care of there, whereas here in Africa the concept of museums and curating is a relatively new one," said Mr Lagat. "There you have special buildings with controlled environments, humidity monitors, secure storage, ultraviolet filters on windows, so many things. Here we are putting those things in place, but we are not there yet." The exhibition, Hazina: Traditions, Trade and Transitions in Eastern Africa, is housed in the former home of the colonial provincial commissioner, one of Nairobi's oldest buildings, which has been renovated as a gallery. There are new deadlocks on the doors and a sophisticated alarm system but Nairobi's smog drifts through open windows from the clogged roundabout outside. In buildings housing some of Kenya's own collections of national treasures, power cuts are common, storage and cataloguing are sometimes chaotic and low visitor numbers keep investment down. The British Museum is working with National Museums of Kenya to change that and the exhibition is hopefully the first of many joint ventures. "The British Museum is committed to developing these kinds of collaborations across the world to generate a deeper understanding of a global citizenship," said Neil MacGregor, the museum's director. The British Government and the British Council are backing the museum's plans with £1 million in handouts, which will enable further exhibitions, including displays in Ethiopia and Mali. It is unclear yet whether their efforts will soften the views of those who want all artefacts returned to Africa. "When you see all this in here, it looks fantastic, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth," said Gikonyo Muchiri, 28, a graphic designer from Nairobi, who was touring the exhibition yesterday. "How can you loan something back to the person you stole it from, then expect him to give it back again?"