Jamaica To British Museum: Hand Back Taino Sculptures.

This is a replica of the sculpture found in a cave in the Spot's mountain within the Carpenter’s Mountain Range, Manchester, Jamaica. Figures like these are called zemís, they served as an intermediary or representation of a deity or spirit. They were religious objects imbued with the power of the spirits that they represented. They could represent familial or mythic ancestors or deities. The zemís played a prominent role in religious ceremonies relating to fertility, healing, divination and the cult of ancestors. The original sculpture is in the British Museum.
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KINGSTON, Jamaica–November 9th, 2020–The Jamaica Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport is moving to retrieve precolonial indigenous sculptures being housed at the British Museum in the United Kingdom (UK).

These are Taino wooden sculptures – the ‘Boinayel figures’ and ‘Birdman’.

Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Hon. Olivia Grange, said that “as Minister, I am determined to ensure the repatriation of cultural objects taken from Jamaica, which constitute our rich cultural heritage,” she noted.

She was speaking at the recent virtual staging of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) Heritage Fest.

Photo: Contributed. This is one of two historic Taino wood carving figures that Jamaica wants the British Museum to repatriate to Jamaica.

Minister Grange said the return of the artefacts “will fill the gaps in our history that are critical to the process of understanding ourselves and fostering greater cultural awareness”.

She informed that the Ministry, with the help of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, has initiated the process of “engaging our British partners” to get the artefacts.

She noted that in 1981, the British High Commission in Jamaica had identified approximately 137 objects from Jamaica that were housed at the British Museum.

Information obtained from the IOJ, states that the Taino sculptures were removed from a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in the parish of Vere, now known as Manchester, during the 18th century.

Those objects are also called Carpenter’s Mountain carvings.

“The objects are slated to have been acquired by the British Museum in the period between 1799 and 1803. They were formally entered into the Museum’s collection in 1977,” the document says further.

The IOJ’s Heritage Fest, under the theme ‘Treasures of the IOJ: Every Object Tells a Story’, was streamed on the Institute’s YouTube channel.

The Jamaican press release does not include any response from the British Museum, which has traditionally been reluctant to return foreign artefacts, the best known of which is probably the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
In 2011 the British Museum issued a statement that said:

“The British Museum’s Trustees argue that the Parthenon Sculptures are integral to the Museum’s purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement.

“Here Greece’s cultural links with the other great civilizations of the ancient world, especially Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and Rome can be clearly seen, and the vital contribution of ancient Greece to the development of later cultural achievements in Europe, Asia, and Africa can be followed and understood.

“The current division of the surviving sculptures between museums in eight countries, with about equal quantities present in Athens and London, allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focusing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture.

“This, the Museum’s Trustees believe, is an arrangement that gives maximum public benefit for the world at large and affirms the universal nature of the Greek legacy.”

The British Museum has also claimed it has a right to keep the Elgin Marbles because it effectively saved them from further damage.
Ian Jenkins was quoted by the BBC, while associated with the British Museum, as saying “If Lord Elgin did not act as he did, the sculptures would not survive as they do. And the proof of that as a fact is merely to look at the things that were left behind in Athens.” Yet the British Museum has also admitted that the sculptures were damaged by “heavy-handed” cleaning, although the precise level of damage is disputed by campaigners in Britain and Greece.


Hopefully some kind of arrangement can be worked out between the Jamaica National Museum and the British Museum over the future of these historically important objects.  Perhaps a time-share arrangement by which the originals and replicas are swapped back and forth would allow for the artefacts to be viewed and studied by the largest number of people on both sides of the Atlantic.

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