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Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology


The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) is a university museum which holds exceptionally important collections of artefacts, works of art, photographs and archival documents, representative of humanity’s history and the cultures of the world in the modern and contemporary periods. MAA was one of the first UK museums to return artefacts to a nation of origin (Uganda, in 1961) and has since been consistently committed to cultural exchange and collaborative scholarship involving local and Indigenous peoples associated with collections.

Collections have reached the Museum in many different ways. Some artefacts, in common with those in similar museums, were acquired in the aftermath of violence, as loot, or in other ways that would not be considered legitimate or appropriate today. The Museum is committed to transparency around the histories of the collections, and supports research towards better understandings of the institution's history.

The Museum will consider requests to repatriate material, and will do so on a case-by-case basis. MAA will engage with Indigenous representatives and other interested parties in an honest and respectful way, and embraces an open and responsive approach to questions around the future care, circulation and destinations of cultural property.

Potential claimants should note that some artefacts have been placed 'on deposit' at MAA, for example, by Cambridge colleges, which are charitable foundations separate from the University. In these cases, it may be necessary to for claimants to submit requests to other organisations; MAA staff will provide guidance and where necessary contact details.

For further information and guidance, please see the following document:

Our approach to the return of Benin Bronzes

In 2017, the University of Cambridge hosted a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), which brings together European museums and representatives of the Government of Nigeria and the Royal Court of Benin. Since then, the University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) has supported the BDG commitment to returning work to a major new museum in development in Benin City. In 2019, MAA, and the University of Cambridge Museums consortium, developed a new framework for the return of artefacts.

In January 2022, MAA received a formal request from the National Commission of Museums and Monuments in Nigeria for the return of items taken by British-led forces from Benin City in February 1897. Staff at MAA have identified 116 objects with a connection to the so-called Benin Expedition. The return was subsequently approved by the Museum’s Management Committee, University Council and the UK Charity Commission, and the University is now planning for the transfer of ownership of these artefacts of enormous cultural and historical significance to the NCMM in 2023. Some artefacts will remain at MAA, on loan, for the purposes of research and exhibition. The Museum and its Governing Body is delighted to be embarking on this new phase of collaboration, built upon an acknowledgement of ownership.

Click here to read our full statement on the return of Benin Bronzes.


Past claims and returns

In 1961, MAA was one of the first museums in the United Kingdom to return artefacts - a group of relics associated with the deity Kibuuka which were returned following a request by the then new government of independent Uganda. The objects were placed on display at the Uganda Museum, where they remain today.

The Museum does not care for collections of human remains (those held by the University are curated in the Duckworth Collection, in the Department of Archaeology) though a range of artefacts incorporate human remains, and there are some archaeological remains, such as bones preserved in European funerary pots.  In 2005, the Museum returned moko mokai, preserved tattooed heads, to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. At that time, the Te Papa repatriation team preferred to undertake negotiation without publicity, and the return of the remains was not made public through the media.

Over the last twenty years, the Museum has received only a few claims for the return of artefacts. However, MAA is in close contact with initiatives such as the Return of Cultural Heritage project in Australia, and is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group. We share information concerning collections held in Cambridge with these networks and others, and contribute to planning towards the return of artefacts.

The formal claim most recently received, in November 2016, was from Rodney Kelly, a Gweagal man from Bermagui, south of Sydney. It sought return of four spears taken by participants in the first voyage of Captain James Cook, shortly after their arrival at Kamay (Botany Bay) on the east coast of Australia in April 1770. Following consideration by a sub-committee and advice from Indigenous and non-Indigenous sources in Australia, the claim was rejected, in part because it was not supported by the relevant representative Indigenous body, the La Perouse Local Area Land Council. The full report can be read here. However, the claim led to a series of meetings in both Australia and the UK, between MAA staff and Aboriginal representatives and researchers. Rodney Kelly was welcomed to the Museum on several occasions over 2016-19 and invited to meet staff and give talks to students. Three of the four spears were returned to Australia in March 2020 for inclusion in the 'Endeavour Voyage' exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. The spears were also displayed at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney, where they were made directly accessible to members of the local Kamay community.


Gweagal spears appropriated by Captain James Cook in 1770 (in glass case) exhibited alongside spears newly made by Gweagal artist, Rod Mason, in the Endeavour Voyage exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, 2020-21

Future returns

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is set to return to Uganda historic artefacts from Cambridge to the Uganda Museum in Kampala in 2022, as part of the project Repositioning the Uganda Museum.

Find out more about the project

Two million years of human history. One million artefacts. Countless astonishing stories.