A Woman's Dying Wish Leads to Returning a Piece of History
An intriguing voicemail left for a UArizona archaeologist in the spring led to the repatriation of artifacts to Mauritania – and became the first step toward a new partnership.
Speaking English with a French accent, the woman in the voicemail said she had a collection of artifacts she acquired from the African country of Mauritania in the late 1980s.
The message Irene Bald Romano received in May was intriguing but not exceptional.
As an art historian and archaeologist, and an expert on Greek and Roman antiquities, Romano occasionally fields calls from federal investigators about confiscated artifacts. She also gets the odd message from someone curious to know more about an item they've acquired.
But this message felt different, said Romano, a professor in the University of Arizona School of Art who also holds an appointment in the School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
The woman, in her message, explained she had acquired the artifacts – an assortment of stone tools, pieces of pottery, arrowheads, hair beads, and some natural history items that all fit into a textbook-sized plastic case – during her time as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. She seemed committed to ensuring the artifacts find a suitable home, perhaps in a local museum or at a school where students could learn from them.
But ideally, the woman said, they would be returned to Mauritania.
And the matter was urgent.
"She said in that message, 'I'm dying of cancer, and I really need to figure out what to do with this,'" Romano said. "She sounded so sincere that I thought this was something I should follow up on."
Her instincts to follow up paid off.
That voicemail kicked off a seven-month process to return the items to Mauritania. The effort culminated with Mamadou Baro, an associate professor of anthropology who is from Mauritania and specializes in the region, traveling to his home country this month to present the items to Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, as well as ambassadors to Mauritania from the U.S., France, Germany and Morocco and representatives from the country's Ministry of Culture, national museum and University of Nouakchott, in the country's capital.
The collection also has become a catalyst for a new partnership between UArizona, the national museum and the University of Nouakchott that will give students at both universities opportunities to team up on research and other projects related to anthropology, museum studies and other areas.
"This tiny thing is bringing many people together," Baro said. "We always talk about collaboration, but this is becoming more real."
A Woman With a 'Museum Curator's Mind'
Born near the Bay of Biscay in western France in the spring of 1946, Marie-France Racette fell in love with deserts during a trip to Algeria in 1984.
She married an American, joined the U.S. Peace Corps, and volunteered for the federal aid agency in Mauritania from 1987-1989. Her work as an agricultural extension agent involved training locals in vegetable gardening, irrigation and date palm management.
In the 1990s, she continued to do similar work in northern Haiti.
She came to Tucson in 2003 and worked at Tucson High Magnet School, first as a receptionist and later as a substitute French teacher. She retired in 2012 but stayed busy working part time for The Loft Cinema and attending UArizona classes and workshops.
By the time Racette called university experts about her collection, she had held onto the artifacts for more than 30 years.
She had meticulously documented and cared for the items, making her own catalog with descriptions of all the pieces and details on where she got them. Many items she found in the desert. Others she bought in shops. Some were gifts from locals.
"She had a kind of museum curator's mind," Romano said.
Soon after the phone call, Romano went to visit Racette in her apartment in Tucson to view the collection. After discussing options, Romano agreed to be responsible for the collection and find an appropriate home for it.
The Arizona State Museum, where Romano is curator of Mediterranean archaeology, does not collect African objects, and Romano didn't know of another museum in Tucson that would take them. She told Racette that perhaps a local high school would find educational value in the collection. Repatriation of the artifacts to Mauritania was also likely an option but would require more investigation.
A Country Working to Preserve its Past
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, as the country is officially known, had long faced – and was still facing – a challenging period of conflict by the time Racette arrived there in the late 1980s.
There was little interest in preserving archaeological materials at the time, Baro said, so many are still buried. Experts in the country estimate that only about 2% of the country's archaeological remains have been recovered, Baro said.
Before leaving the country in 1989 with her mementos, Racette tried leaving them with a museum. But when museum officials weren't interested, she took them with her. In doing so, Baro said, she helped preserve items that likely would have been lost.
"I think what she did was OK – even appreciated, actually – given the context back then," he said.
Racette's interest in returning the items to Mauritania this year coincided with a global conversation about the repatriation of artifacts, particularly from European and American museums with collections acquired from African regions under colonial rule.
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron promised that returning African artifacts to their countries of origin would be a priority for his administration. Just last month, the U.S. government returned to the West African country of Mali more than 900 artifacts discovered in an illegal shipment.
Repatriation of cultural artifacts is enforced, in part, by U.S. and foreign laws, as well as formal agreements between countries, said Romano, who teaches a School of Art course called Art as Plunder: The Spoils of War, the Formation of Collections, and Trade in Stolen Art. In some cases, repatriation is driven by diplomacy and a moral sense of wanting to rectify the wrongs of the past, Romano said.
When U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents or other agencies suspect they've found an artifact that might have been brought illegally into the U.S., they call experts like Romano to identify it and verify its country or region of origin using photographs.
Although Mauritania and the U.S. have both ratified an international agreement that prohibits the illicit importing and exporting of cultural property, the two countries do not have a memorandum of understanding that regulates repatriation, Romano said.
Immediate Interest in Repatriation
Romano sent images of Racette's artifacts to Steven L. Kuhn, a UArizona anthropologist who was working in Morocco at the time. Looking at the pictures, Kuhn estimated that some of the stone tools could date back to the Neolithic period, when humans were just learning to build settlements and grow crops, but it would be difficult to verify.
Romano also reached out to Baro, who has spent his career making connections in Mauritania and Northwest Africa.
Baro, who holds citizenship in both the U.S. and Mauritania, is chair of the UArizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, which conducts teaching, research and outreach throughout Arizona, the U.S. and abroad. He also has served as a consultant for international and nongovernmental organizations dedicated to providing aid around the world, including Oxfam International, the U.S. Agency for International Development and organizations within the United Nations.
"He has relationships beyond your average person from Mauritania or a professor from the U.S.," said Diane Austin, director of the School of Anthropology. "He cultivates them; he's a leader of a whole network in the African diaspora to keep people connected back to their countries to find ways to help. This has been a lifelong mission of his."
When Baro saw Romano's email about the artifacts, he picked up the phone and called Mamadou Kane, head of the National Museum of Mauritania.
"He was immediately interested and even excited, I would say, about the whole thing," Baro said.
The two discussed handing the items off to the Mauritanian embassy in Washington, D.C. But Baro knew he would soon be returning to his home country, so he offered to deliver the artifacts to Mauritania himself.
Kane extended an invitation to come to Nouakchott, the country's capital, for a repatriation ceremony that would coincide with an arts and culture festival on Dec. 10.
To get the items ready for their journey and the ceremony, Romano enlisted the help of one of her students, Adri Boudrieau, a senior studying art history, classics and anthropology, to catalog and photograph the artifacts.
As a volunteer at the Arizona State Museum and a former student-employee in the UArizona Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research, Boudrieau had experience handling and cataloging archaeological and other objects.
Boudrieau was charmed by Racette's story and, like Romano, was impressed with Racette's attention to detail. Boudrieau's work involved measuring the objects and double-checking the details Racette had already recorded.
"It's amazing how much someone who isn't trained as a curator or isn't an archaeologist still obviously loved and cared for these materials and saw the importance in them," said Boudrieau, who aspires to have a career in museums.
After spending time with every piece of the collection, Boudrieau felt how significant the experience was.
"It symbolizes so much more – getting to connect with Mauritania and getting to be part of this repatriation, which normally for students is pretty hands-off," she said. "It was nice to just be a part of it."
'What is Most Valuable'
Romano called Racette in mid-September to let her know that the repatriation to Mauritania would move forward.
"You've made my day," Racette said.
Racette's sense of urgency to find the items a new home turned out to be warranted. She died in Tucson on Oct. 19. She was 75.
Baro was sad to learn that Racette had passed before he could complete the repatriation.
"Here is a woman who spent a lot of time in Mauritania, enjoyed the country, loved the people, and helped in many ways, and then came back here and did this gesture," Baro said. "I don't know what the value of these items is, but to me what is most valuable is the fact that she kept these artifacts and thought about returning them to Mauritania."
In Mauritania, a Focus on the Gesture
Baro's trip to Nouakchott took two days and four flights.
The day after he arrived, he spent another 10 hours in a car, riding from Nouakchott to Ouadane, where the country was holding its Festival of Ancient Cities. The annual arts and culture festival, which finds a new host city in Mauritania each year, served as the venue for the repatriation ceremony on Dec. 10.
At the festival, Baro learned the artifacts would be on display at one of about 80 exhibition booths, with his situated right next to the booth run by the National Museum of Mauritania. He soon connected with Kane, the museum's director. Dignitaries from Mauritania and abroad were expected to arrive as well.
But Baro was surprised when he eventually found himself face-to-face with Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, Mauritania's president.
"The president spent lots of his limited time with us," Baro said – about five minutes, even as his staff urged him to keep moving. "He was really impressed."
The president, Baro said, wanted to know more about Racette and her dying wish to have the items returned. Similar questions also came from the French ambassador to Mauritania, who was curious to know more about the Frenchwoman who initiated the repatriation.
Cynthia Kierscht, the U.S. ambassador to Mauritania, who was also in attendance, thanked Baro for the work he and his colleagues did to have the items returned.
Many officials at the event concluded that this was the first official repatriation of artifacts to Mauritania. News of the effort has spread through the region, Baro said, and has gotten attention from media outlets such as Africanews.
Many people were most interested in Racette's gesture, Baro's willingness to see it through, and the potential for similar repatriations to follow.
"For them to get these items that are rare to find, it's a big deal," especially given the country's history surrounding preservation, Baro said. "For a regular person to believe that this needed to come back home – to them, it's huge."
Kane, the national museum director, agreed.
"This symbolic return of artifacts from a citizen of Arizona is becoming a major marker in the history of repatriation of cultural objects to Mauritania and a linking bridge between the peoples of the United States and Mauritania," Kane said.
Baro is focused now on using the repatriation as a starting point for a continuing partnership involving the University of Arizona, the Mauritanian government and the University of Nouakchott. Archaeologists and officials at the festival said the country's most immediate need, when it comes to preserving its past, is a digital archival infrastructure. Baro is now investigating ways to help build one.
He sees benefits in such a project for everyone: Mauritanian schoolchildren living in rural areas wouldn't always need to travel to museums in large cities to learn history if they could look at photos of artifacts. And college students and researchers in Mauritania and Arizona could use valuable data from such a digital archive for their research.
"The challenge now is taking it beyond this idea and coming up with some kind of action plan to do something that they think is important, that we think is important, and get funding for it. But the collaboration makes all this more reachable," Baro said. "We could play an important role."
Mauritanian officials, Baro added, also mentioned extending an invitation to a delegation of UArizona representatives for next year's Festival of Ancient Cities.
"This successful repatriation effort by Dr. Baro and Dr. Romano and their colleagues across campus embodies the compassion, determination and integrity that we strive for at the University of Arizona," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I am proud to know that we have committed experts at this university who can take a request like the one Ms. Racette made and turn it into a reality. I look forward to seeing what comes of further partnerships with our friends and colleagues in Mauritania."
When the festival wrapped up, Baro handed the artifacts off to staff with the National Museum of Mauritania. The collection, for now, is still in Ouadane. Some artifacts are now within a few miles from where Racette acquired them.
Soon, all of them will be at the museum in Nouakchott – the ideal outcome Racette had in mind when she picked up the phone in May.
Other UArizona personnel involved with the repatriation effort include Benjamin Fortna, director and professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies; Kristen B. Schmidt, registrar of the UArizona Museum of Art; and Abbass Braham, a former doctoral student in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies who is also from Mauritania.
University of Arizona in the News