The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 2

canopy figure
Jamaican Taino – Figure with canopy (facing left) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the second of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. The first part explores the general context and this second part explores the implications for the Caribbean.

The Caribbean was one of the first world areas to be colonized by Europe, and was completely transformed in the process, with momentous changes in the population and culture. Inevitably, the Caribbean was also one of the early sources for European museums as these emerged, in tandem  with the colonial project. The objects and natural specimens that were acquired and documented in Jamaica by Hans Sloane, who served as the physician of the colonial governor from 1687 to 1689, for instance, became part of the foundational collections of  the British Museum. As I have discussed in another post, certain illustrations in Sloane’s book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols., 1707-1725) are among the earliest sources on the material culture and arts of the enslaved Africans in the island.

Having been present at the birth of the modern museum, so to speak, we could expect the Caribbean to be strongly invested in the debates that surround the subject, including the question of postcolonial restitution. If what I have personally observed is anything to go by, however, most persons in the Caribbean who are aware of these debates are in agreement that restitution is necessary, but there does not seem to be a lot of passion or discussion about the subject. I assume that there is a prevailing sense that this is about “elsewhere,” mainly about Europe and Africa, and that this does not directly apply to the Caribbean. While there are indeed no high-profile restitution requests from or pertaining to the Caribbean at the present time, there are however significant Caribbean holdings in European and North American museums that were problematically acquired during the colonial era, and some of these could certainly be the subject of restitution requests on the part of Caribbean countries. And conversely, there are public and private collections in the Caribbean that could be the target of such requests, while regional practices with regards to acquisitions often fall short of international standards with regards to provenance. The subject is worthy of a dissertation but I will discuss a few specific instances that have been the subject of some contention.

Bird man
Jamaican Taino – The Bird Man (800-1500) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum holds three Taino wood sculptures of Zemis (deities) from Jamaica, which are among the best known examples of Taino art. They were found in 1792 by a surveyor in a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in what was then the Parish of Vere, now southern Manchester. They were in 1799 shown and reviewed at the Society of Antiquaries in London and later entered the British Museum collection. None of them are on view at the present time, although they have been exhibited regularly, at the British Museum and elsewhere, and they have also been studied, written about and reproduced with regular frequency. The canopy figure, which is the smallest of the three sculptures, is the most recently exhibited: it was shown in 2015-2016 at the National Museum of Singapore in the exhibition Treasures of the World’s Cultures, a touring exhibition of works from the British Museum collection.

None of the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings have however ever been exhibited in Jamaica or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Caribbean. Plaster casts were sent to the Institute of Jamaica in 1939 and there has been some speculation that this may have been in response to an early restitution request, although there is no such record (Ostapkowicz 2015, Part I). These plaster casts were part of the permanent exhibits at the Taino Museum (formerly known Arawak Museum), that opened in 1965 at White Marl, a major Taino settlement and midden site in St Catherine. That museum has been closed for several years (with some plans for it to be relocated to Twin Sisters Cave in Hellshire) and the casts are at the National Museum Jamaica. This situation, too, requires  attention.

The National Gallery of Jamaica has requested the loan of these carvings on two occasions.  The first was when David Boxer was preparing his inaugural exhibition for the recently established National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), which was to be a first survey of Jamaican art history. According to what he repeatedly told me, the loan was declined or not even responded to, and he therefore decided to survey the art from the start of the colonial period onward. The resulting exhibition was Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975) and was a seminal effort in how Jamaica’s art history was articulated. The second attempt was for the Arawak Vibrations exhibition in 1994, which was presented on the occasion of Jamaica’s quincentennial, but apparently the NGJ was, ironically, unable to meet the British Museum’s stringent loan requirements.

Jamaican Taino – Male figure (Boinayel?), 15th century © The Trustees of the British Museum

There is at least one other carving in the British Museum, albeit a smaller and less technically refined one, that is of uncertain origin but was recently attributed to Jamaica by the Oxford Archaeologist Joanna Ostapkowicz, and traced to a 1730s find near Flagstaff, St James, during the first Maroon War no less. (Ostapkowicz 2015, Part II).  To my knowledge, however, the British Museum has not (yet) accepted this attribution. Ostapkowicz also makes mention of a Jamaican Zemi carving that would have been part of Hans Sloane’s collections, and was acquired after he left Jamaica, but the whereabouts of this carving are unknown, nor is it certain that this carving was actually ever transferred to the British Museum. And there is also a Taino woodcarving in the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection at the Metropolitan Museum, which has been variously attributed to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, although the latter is now generally accepted. This sculpture is in fact on permanent view. I am not a Taino specialist but it is of note that this carving was acquired in Ireland by one Edna Dakeyne, of London, England, who offered it to Nelson Rockefeller in 1954. That this carving surfaced in the Anglophone world may lend some credence to it being from Jamaica.

Taino – Deity (Zemi) (c1,000 AD), Metropolitan Museum, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Jamaica is certainly in a position to make a restitution claim for the Carpenter’s Mounting carvings, or at least inquire whether they would be loaned for an exhibition today — they have after all been loaned internationally. The point I wish to make here is that it is high time for Caribbean museums and relevant authorities, to do an inventory of relevant holdings in overseas museums, to consult with local and international stakeholders, and to articulate clear policy positions on these matters, nationally and on a shared regional level — this is something for the Museums Association of the Caribbean (MAC) to look into. This also means, however, that there has to be a greater effort in the region to meet international museum standards, not only to be able to negotiate such loans, or restitutions, but also for the benefit of the requesting institutions, their general collections and the mandates they serve.

There are a few other things that are worth considering here. For one, I think it would be foolish to request the restitution for principle’s sake only. There must be a clear purpose for each such request, and the pros and cons of having such objects back in the Caribbean should be carefully considered. Before 1994, my own position on the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings would have been to “go for it” with a restitution request but that year, three major carvings that had been found several decades earlier by local community members in Aboukir, St Ann, were handed over to the Jamaican authorities, and another such carving, a dujo was also found in the hills of Hellshire, St Catherine, there were no Taino woodcarvings of any comparable stature in Jamaica – these carvings can now be seen at the National Gallery of Jamaica.

So the question arises, now that Jamaica has major examples of Taino art that are available for permanent display in its own museums, whether it still makes strategic sense to request the return of the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings, since they will be available to much larger, more diverse audiences through the British Museum (providing they continue to be regularly exhibited), and since such museums are capable of studying and exhibiting such objects in comparative frameworks that are not available to Caribbean Museums. But at the very least, these carvings should be readily available for exhibition to Jamaica, sooner rather than later, and some form of compensation could also be requested, either monetary or in the form of technical assistance to the local museums (and I am not discounting the fact that there are in fact many ways in which Jamaican museums have already productively collaborated and received assistance from their larger American and European counterparts.)


While Caribbean museums have evolved in dialogue with models such as the universal survey museum, of which the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum are examples, there are very few museums in the Caribbean that fit that particular model. One exception is the National Museum of Fine Arts, in Havana, Cuba, which has Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities, among its many other holdings, most of which are focused on Cuba and Cuban artists. This collection can today be seen at the Asturias Center, one of the present locations of the museum, along with other antiquities in the Cuban national collection.

Many years ago, when I first visited that museum, and before its more recent reorganization and renovation, I had the opportunity to see the museum’s antiquities collection. On my return to Jamaica, I rather dismissively stated to a colleague that I did not quite see the point of such collections in the Caribbean, since they did not measure up to what could be seen at major museums such as the British Museum and the Louvre. She took me on, arguing that most people in the Caribbean will never see original Egyptian art and that she was delighted that Cubans at least had such opportunity. She was absolutely right, of course, and her response needs to give us some pause, also with regards to who exactly we are giving and depriving of access when restitution requests are effected, as the answer may be less clear-cut, ethically, than many think. It certainly needs to be part of the considerations when restitution requests are made.

The National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba owns some 114 Egyptian art works and artifacts., which is known as the Collection Earl of Lagunillas, after the collector Joaquín Gumà Herrera who in 1955 donated his Egyptian collection to the Cuban state. This donation represents the bulk of the museum’s Egyptian collection, which is considered the best of its kind in Latin America. The Earl of Lagunillas had acquired his collections through the specialist art and antiquities art market and I would not be surprised to learn that some of his acquisitions did not quite meet today’s standards for the trade in cultural property, so restitution requests cannot be ruled out altogether. I am not aware of any such requests, however, and Cuba actually received a sarcophagus as a donation from Egypt in 1974, which can be read as a fiat for its National Museum’s Egyptian collection, of which this donation is now a part.

The broader point is, however, that the Caribbean is not itself immune to restitution requests and that, in our rapidly changing world, there should be greater awareness of its implications, as these too could change rapidly. I should for instance mention here that some of the holdings of Cuba’s museums were forcibly nationalized from major private collections after the Revolution, which is a source of contention in the anti-Castro Cuban diaspora. Other historical wrongs were arguably righted with these nationalizations, but there have been some legal challenges when some such works ended up at major international auction houses, so not all nationalized works have remained in Cuban public collections. The sale of such nationalized items in the international art market is of course much harder to defend.

The Caribbean also needs to get its house in order with how cultural property is traded and collected within the region. Art museums, for instance, need to make a greater effort to ensure that the provenance of  art works they acquire on the secondary market, or by donation, is appropriately documented, and does not include works that were inappropriately or unethically acquired — some Caribbean museums have been lax with provenance matters and some the proverbial chickens may eventually come home to roost about acquisitions that were not above board. And more attention needs to be paid to mitigating the illegal and undocumented trade in Taino artifacts and other Caribbean antiquities, as this not only deprives local museums of potentially major collections, but also precludes the scientific study of excavations and the development of archaeological knowledge, as many things are removed from the find site by untrained and unauthorized “finders.” And finally, Caribbean states that have not yet done so, should make sure to sign and subscribe to the applicable international treaties and conventions, to help protect their own cultural assets and those of others.


Ostapkowicz, Joanna. (2015). “The Sculptural Legacy of the Jamaican Taíno: Part 1: The Carpenter’s Mountain Carvings.” Jamaica Journal, Vol. 35, 52 – 59

Álvarez Sosa, Milagros, Aymée Chicuri Lastra and Irene Morfini. The Egyptian Collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. Tenerife: Ediciones ad Aegyptum, 2015.

8 thoughts on “The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 2

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  1. A very poignant and, quite frankly, frightening discussion on global politics and art. I agree with much of what you have discussed on the subject and we should be very careful about the ways in which global politics, as opposed to the benevolence of this or that country, has become the driving force for much of these issues.

    It was particularly maddening to watch the images of the Taliban invading museums and destroying thousands of years of work. I am curious to hear about your ideas on this kind of destruction, particularly because of the question on the ideas of loot. As you have mentioned, the Nazis during the second war sought to steal the art of the allied forces and in so doing made those works of art a thing of revitalized value on both sides of the isle. If we look carefully at the resurgence of much of renaissance art, much of it occurred during the latter parts of the 20th century, and that was in direct response to the war, not simply the war on the battlefield, but also the war of aesthetics. As we know, Hitler, and much of his high command were not just artists themselves but avid “collectors” and overall patrons of their arts. (That’s part of the reason the feminists have a love-hate relationship with Leni Riefenstahl, and many have gone through great pains to separate her from the carnival of the Reich)

    With China leading the new BRIC nations, and the global infrastructure advancement, dubbed, “one belt, one road”, which sees a network of connectivity through over 150 countries, and Africa being a main one, how much of the reparations fight is being delegated by these initiatives and being carefully done at a time when much of the colonial powers are imploding under issues such as BREXIT and other clashes between the new-right wing politics of the West? I agree with you in suggesting that as the centers of powers shift, much of the ways in which we have conceived of museums will shift. But, if that is true, then what role does the contemporary artists play in the managing of these centers of aesthetics? And, do the curators, writers etc bare any responsibility in supporting artists that, at least attempt to discuss these issues in there work? I think you will agree that this Is not just an issue for artifactual work but cultural capital being made in the present.

    “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”

    How about our own responsibility in safeguarding our own legacies for posterity? It seems to me, just seems to me, that we don’t have to encounter colonial powers, from the west or potentially from the east, for our cultural heritage to be dispersed across the lands. I am sure I am not breaking news here by sayin that one of the most profound collections of art, the Dr. David Boxer collection of -art, furniture, history, memory, legacy… being auctioned off like scrap metal in a few short weeks. Now, I don’t know any of the details. I do not have any idea how the organization of this has been achieved. But I suspect, just suspect, that this was not his original intention. I have no arguments with anyone about what they want to do, with what they may be entitled to do, but I do know that it feels like watching those Taliban videos all over again. And everything that we are now “sell-ebrating” came out of that inventory.

    Many artists, across generations visited this place of learning. And it is such a sad thing for me personally to see it be discontinued. Why is it easier for other people to see the value in their culture, but not see the value of us in ours? Every major studio, hub, even bars and hospitals where artists lived, hung out, even got sick and died in, where made into a heritage site in many other countries around the world, and yet, in Boxer ‘s space, is some of the great Caribbean collections of several things in many aesthetic and intellectual directions, and forgive me, but I cant help but feel that we have all lost something in this. In the end, we cannot blame Leopold II or some strange general of the 18th and 19th century. We must take full responsibility for the resulting vacuity.

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  2. Thanks, Phillip. On a deadline but here are two quick comments:

    The “we are holding these works of art on behalf of humankind” argument may be problematic in the restitution debate, but no matter who the (rightful) custodians are, it is true that we are dealing with the heritage of humanity. So yes, there are moments where interventions may be necessary, if that is even possible, and there are in fact other, unintentional instances where such heritage has been threatened and outside interventions are helping to remedy the situation. After the earthquake for instance, Haiti has received assistance from organizations such as the Smithsonian, or the Google virtual recreation of the burnt-out museum in Brazil. But the question is when is it right to intervene. It is a very difficult call. I know of instances where artifacts were returned to Native American groups and destroyed, because that is what was supposed to happen to them, ritually, if they had not been collected. What is right or wrong in this instance? Over the centuries, a lot of art has been destroyed in the name of religion, but whose rights should take precedence here. Not an easy call at all, and best looked at on a case-by-case basis.

    As for the Boxer collection, as you know I am not close to that situation and constrained to comment. I think just announcing the auction, without any communications to contextualize it, was a very bad idea, as it has generated strong, impulsive responses (who would have been responsible for that communication is another matter). When I first heard about the auction, I was upset too. After having been taken on (by none less than Christopher Irons, I gather), the auctioneer posted a statement that part of the collection will go to the NGJ. So the situation may not be as dire as we first thought, let’s see what happens. But what is true, and this is something to look at throughout the Caribbean, as there are other such instances, is that major art collections are also major historical and cultural artifacts, the product of particular ideas about art, a particular cultural moment, and particular networks of relationships with artists etc. A lot is lost when such collections are dismantled and dispersed. Most major collections have some plans for what needs to be done, not always very practical ones, but at least there is a longer term vision. Not saying all should be preserved, but some collections should be, and there should at least be documentation. The question is how those visions are to become a reality and most of this has to do with money and sustainability. So there needs to be a discussion on that in the Caribbean, policy positions and some practical ideas about how to handle such situations. Why did the JNHT not intervene in the case of the Boxer collection and house, which is also at stake, for instance? Perhaps such interventions need to be part of the JNHT remit, if that is not already the case. But there are also other ways to deal with this. Boxer’s collection really needs to be the subject of a book. So many photographs have been taken over the years – I have some myself that I would happily make available – so reconstructing the collection and how it was lived with is really not so hard. The question is, who is to write it, in a context where petty allegiances and vendettas seem to take the upper hand over everything else in the Jamaican art world. As I have said before, we need better, more inspired cultural leadership, as that is sorely lacking right now.


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