The Maasai Living Cultures Project is a collaboration between the Pitt Rivers Museum and Maasai community leaders, with the process led by InsightShare, a community development organisation working with Indigenous people around the world to address key issues through Participatory Video.
The project is funded by the Staples Trust, a Sainsbury family charitable trust. It is part of one strand of the Museum's ongoing work to build equitable relations with Indigenous Peoples whose material culture is represented in the Pitt Rivers collections.
The project began in 2017 when Maasai cultural leaders visited the Museum to see Maasai objects. Over the following years, further research and additional visits took place and five objects were identified as culturally sensitive family heirlooms. None of the objects have been on display or the subject of research at the Museum. In Maasai tradition, their absence from a family is believed to incur bad luck, so the objects' presence in the Museum continues to cause harm to descendants. The Museum has subsequently taken guidance from Maasai traditional and religious leaders to find ways forward with regards to the care of the objects.
The project marks a key milestone in June and July 2023. Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Prof. Laura Van Broekhoven; Curator, Marina de Alarcon and Research Assistant Thandi Wilson are visiting Kenya and Tanzania to participate in an educational programme and take part in traditional Maasai healing ceremonies and meetings with the families close to their homes. The Museum has also presented symbolic gifts of cows, funded by the Staples Trust, to the families in question.
The project and participation in Maasai ceremonies represents pioneering academic work in contemporary museum practice. Professor Laura van Broekhoven says: "The Pitt Rivers Museum's mission is to engage people across the world, increase understanding of humanities' many ways of knowing and extend our reach through innovative partnerships such as this one.
We are deeply honoured to have been invited to take part in traditional Maasai ceremonies in Kenya and Tanzania. We hope this process of redress, which has been led by the Maasai over the past six years, makes a meaningful impact on Maasai families, who are the descendants of the people whose objects were taken during periods of war and colonial oppression."
Nick Lunch, Director of InsightShare, says: "Participatory video has provided a bridge linking the staff at the Museum with the Maasai community, and enabled Maasai youth and elders to reshape the narratives linked to the artefacts, bringing lived experience into the museum gallery."
Samwel Nangiria, Director of PALCA, says: "This process has brought Maasai nations together across borders. These meetings are a unique, historic occurrence bringing the leadership of twenty five sections that represent over 1 million Maasai living in Kenya and Tanzania together for the first time in over a century."
Mokompo Ole Simel, the Maa Nation Spiritual Leader, said: "Reconciliation is not only about closing a sad chapter of Maasai community's past, but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice."
Jessica Frankopan, Settlor of The Staples Trust, said: "I am hugely grateful to all of those involved in this project - and especially to Maasai community leaders - for the dialogue, co-operation and support over the last six years. We have worked on issues that are sensitive and extremely important and have been able to do so by building relationships based on trust. Thank you to all for working so hard to make this happen."