Exhibiting Grassfields Restricted Objects in Museums Ruptures, Dilemmas and Challenges of Restitution by NGITIR Victor BAYENA

Panel: Hidden Objects - Sensitive and Restricted Objects in Museum Collections. Issues Surrounding their Storage, Access, Consultations, and Potential Repatriation Wednesday, 23 June, 9:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m. (CET)


The stratification of most African societies, the role of secret customary practices and the primacy of the invisible over the visible, gave rise to what peoples of the Cameroon Grassfields call restricted objects. Known for their attributes as power objects, access to them is limited to initiates, their exposure closely tied to taboos and their functions religious. They each have a soul and spiritual meaning. They are born, they live and die. (VB Ngitir, 2017). On account of their religious functions, restricted exposure and symbolisms within various customary societies, their alienation by colonial agents since the 1890s, and eventual appropriation by Western museums in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, New York, London, and other cities have created multiple ruptures both at sources and destinations. In Cameroon, the crusade for their restitution began in the 1970s, climaxed in the 1990s but remains fruitless. Hinged on the theory of functional conservation, (AO Konare, 1995) this paper situates the alienation of Grassfields power objects, obstacles to their public exhibition and prospects for restitution. Its central question is: “What ruptures surround the alienation and exhibition of these objects and how prospective is their restitution?” Our methodology blends oral tradition, qualitative data and participatory observation, analyzed on the basis of chronology, content and the conservation debate.
Key words: Grassfields, restricted, objects, ruptures, dilemmas, restitution``


Victor BAYENA NGITIR was born in Victoria, Cameroon. He did basic, high school and University education in Kumbo, Nkambe and Yaoundé respectively. He obtained the BA, MA and Post-graduate diploma in history and in 2014, a PhD in art history and museum studies. He was high school teacher of history for 20 years before joining the University of Douala in 2017. He has carried out extensive ethnographic research on Grassfields palace museums. He is senior lecturer at the University of Douala, Cameroon. His research interests are art history, archives and cultural heritage and community museums.