Free enamel pin when you buy any two Atlas Obscura products. Shop now.

Liberia Wants Its Cultural Artifacts Back, Please

The country is struggling to fill its renovated national museum because so many items are exhibited elsewhere.

Liberia's National Museum, pictured in 2011.
Liberia’s National Museum, pictured in 2011. Courtesy Liberian Consulate

Liberia is re-opening its national museum—but there’s a problem. In 2016, UNESCO provided $400,000 of funding to revitalize the 155-year-old building and fix its leaky roof. Now, it’s ready to go, bar one all-important thing: the stuff inside.

During the 14 brutal years of Liberia’s two civil wars, an estimated 5,800 artifacts made their way out of the country and into the hands of private collectors or foreign museums. Culture Minister Joyce Kenkpen last week announced a “Let’s Save Our Museum” campaign, which aims to source new artifacts, from artists, and reclaim some of the stolen or lost ones.

“We don’t want to open a museum with just a handful of artifacts on display,” she told the Liberian Observer. The three floors of the museum might be state-of-the-art, but, at the moment, they’re sitting empty. “This will not attract the visitors we expect,” she said. Kenkpen hopes that they’ll be able to reclaim about half of the “arts and artifacts” currently elsewhere. “We have written these museums we know have Liberia’s artworks about the need for them to return them,” she said. “And the discussion is ongoing fruitfully.”

In 2005, the BBC reported that there were fewer than 100 objects left in the museum. In the meantime, foreign museums have a wealth of Liberian treasures, whether looted in the civil wars or acquired earlier, when the laws were less stringent. Some of these appear in anthropology collections: In the “ethnology” section of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, there are over 600 artifacts thought to be from Liberia, ranging from masks to “divining sets” to bracelets. The Pitt Rivers, in Oxford, has 36, including imitation glass leopard teeth and a bag made out of monkey skin.

While Liberia waits on the return of its treasures, here is a selection of some of the Liberian artifacts on display elsewhere.

This "helmet mask," made of wood and tar, dates to the early 20th century and is currently in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, in New York.
This “helmet mask,” made of wood and tar, dates to the early 20th century and is currently in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, in New York. Brooklyn Museum/CC-BY 3.0
This Liberian 25-cent banknote, from 1880, is on display at the National Museum of American History. Before the note was found, it was not known that this denomination existed at all.
This Liberian 25-cent banknote, from 1880, is on display at the National Museum of American History. Before the note was found, it was not known that this denomination existed at all. Public Domain/National Numismatic Collection
This standing female figure is made of brass and on display in the in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. It is believed to date to the 1920s.
This standing female figure is made of brass and on display in the in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. It is believed to date to the 1920s. Public Domain
This 19th-century mask, with a hinged jaw, is thought to be a peacemaking one, with its nearly closed eyes and small mouth.
This 19th-century mask, with a hinged jaw, is thought to be a peacemaking one, with its nearly closed eyes and small mouth. Brooklyn Museum/CC-BY 3.0
This wooden "feast ladle" has a handle in the shape of a cow's head and is currently on display in New York. The size of the spoon's bowl suggests generosity and hospitality.
This wooden “feast ladle” has a handle in the shape of a cow’s head and is currently on display in New York. The size of the spoon’s bowl suggests generosity and hospitality. Brooklyn Museum/CC-BY 3.0
This ivory and wood mask, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, comes from Liberia's Mano people and is thought to date to the early 1900s.
This ivory and wood mask, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, comes from Liberia’s Mano people and is thought to date to the early 1900s. Public Domain
This wooden figure, on display in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, shows Zan, a wife of the Krai chief.
This wooden figure, on display in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, shows Zan, a wife of the Krai chief. Public Domain