Illinois State Museum returns sacred objects to Kenya

The Illinois State Museum has returned 37 wooden memorial statues to the National Museums of Kenya.

The statues are known as vigango, and they were returned for repatriation to Mijikenda communities.

They are considered sacred cultural objects and are believed to carry the spirits of male elders who have passed away.

Vigango are prepared for their journey back to Kenya at the ISM Research & Collections Center.

Representatives from museums and universities across the United States will visit Kenya to meet with Mijikenda elders.

They will also gain insight into the National Museums of Kenya’s efforts to protect vigango and restore them to their communities.

Vigango are photographed at the ISM Research & Collections Center prior to their return to Kenya.

"These items are sacred and inalienable from the people who created them," Curator of Anthropology Dr. Brooke Morgan said. "Separating vigango from their rightful owners harms the spiritual well-being of the whole community. The Museum has long recognized the importance of returning these statues to Kenya and appreciates the institutions that have helped pave the way for such a significant large-scale return."


Curator Brooke Morgan transports vigango at the ISM Research & Collections Center for packing and shipment to Kenya.

The vigango were initially removed from Mijikenda villages and sacred sites in the 1980s. 

They were received by art collectors and later transferred to the Illinois State Museum as part of a significant African art collection. 

Unbeknownst to the Museum, the vigango never should have been taken in the first place, officials said. In 2006, Museum staff discovered that a kigango in its collection had been stolen and subsequently returned it to its rightful owner.

Through research and collaborations with colleagues in Kenya, the Museum has now successfully returned all remaining vigango to the National Museums of Kenya for repatriation to Mijikenda communities.