A member of the Jamaican parliament has called out the British Museum for holding onto historically collected indigenous cultural objects, joining growing calls worldwide for the repatriation of heritage artifacts collected during the colonial era.

The Caribbean nation’s culture minister made a public call for the British Museum to repatriate ancient cultural artifacts taken when the island was a British colony, beginning in the 16th century until its independence in 1962. During a speech in the Jamaican parliament on Tuesday, minister Olivia Grange highlighted the UK museum as a holder of several objects from Jamaica’s indigenous Taíno culture.

Two objects of particular importance are a bird–man spiritual figure, and another of the rain god Boiyanel, which were each found in a cave on the island nation in 1792, according to their listed provenance.

“They are not even on display,” Grange said, according to the Jamaica Gleaner. “They are priceless, they are significant to the story of Jamaica, and they belong to the people of Jamaica.” She added that her ministry is working with the government of Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparations to see them returned.

Grange did not name other institutions that are holding Taíno objects taken from the island during early archaeological digs. Museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio in New York, as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, also have Taíno artifacts in their collections, though the objects are not all necessarily from Jamaica, as the Taíno populations have lived across several Caribbean islands.

Taíno riutal seat. Image ©Trustees of the British Museum.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum tells artnet News that the institution has not yet received an official request from the Jamaican government. She explains that British Museum’s Taíno objects were acquired from the Oldman collection in the early 20th century. William Ockleford Oldman was a British dealer and collector of ethnographic art.

In response to the Jamaican minister’s statement that its historical objects are not on display, the museum rep adds that there are examples of two Taíno objects, a stool and a standing figure, which have been on display in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery since 2009. 

“Taíno objects in the collection have been lent extensively to India, Japan, Spain, France, Singapore, and the Horniman Museum in London,” the spokeswoman says. “The Taíno ritual seat was part of the “A History of the World Tour” which has been seen by well over a million people at multiple venues from 2014-18.” She emphasizes that the museum is also involved in several collaborative research projects with island governments and museums in the Caribbean.

Jamaica’s public request comes at a time when heat is rising over the question of whether Western museums should keep objects acquired by force during different historical periods. The British Museum has long been subject to requests for the repatriation of artifacts, such as the Parthenon Marbles from Greece. Recently, African nations, invigorated by a radical French report recommending France to return all such objects, have begun requesting the return of colonial-era objects.

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