These two ancestral memorial statues (vigango) were stolen from Kenya and sold to two American museums until they were rediscovered by two anthropologists and returned to Kalume, to whose family the vigango belonged.

Why should anyone care about ancient cultures? And why should a citizen in the United States, for instance, care what happens to an object buried in China, Iraq, or another distant location, for thousands of years? Because antiquities are among the few survivors of early cultural history.

Objects uncovered in their original contexts, properly interpreted, provide insight into the way our ancestors lived, their societies and their environments. They complete our view of ancient life and enrich our understanding on many levels. As such, antiquities comprise an essential part of our global cultural heritage.

Amidst political turmoil and tremendous humanitarian needs, why should we worry about culture and antiquities? One answer is that “wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt.” (Nature, Vol 423, 29 May 2003) In other words, the physical fabric of the past is vital to the moral and spiritual fabric of the present and future. The idea that our children might not be able to walk into a museum, examine a piece of antiquity, and be inspired by it is unthinkable.

Because the ancient past belongs to all of humanity, we must share stewardship and responsibility for protecting cultural antiquities no matter where they are found. Access to knowledge about our past is a human right.

“It would be like us stealing our grandfather’s tombstone from on top of his grave, or our grandmother’s ashes, and selling them.”

Anthropologist Monica L. Udvardy speaks about the trade of stolen sacred memorial totems (vigango) from the villages of Kenya to private collectors and art dealers in the West in The Christian Science Monitor, 03.02.06