UK Museum Offers to Return Ethiopia’s Stolen Treasures—On Loan

With the pillage of the African continent through colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, a lot of artifacts and items of cultural heritage originating from various nations are showcased till this day at museums and displays around the world.

For years, debates of repatriating looted objects have been ongoing in Europe and the United States with movements like those lobbying British institutions for the return of Nigerian bronze artifacts looted from the Benin kingdom in 1897, only generating talks to return some of them last year, while President Emmanuel Macron of France recently made the return of African artifacts  “a top priority” for his country, saying that “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

Ethiopia, the East African nation located in the Horn of Africa, filed a formal restitution claim in 2007 asking that the UK return hundreds of ancient artifacts and manuscripts taken in 1868 during the capture of Maqdala, the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then Abyssinia.

According to the Association For the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET), only 10 of the 468 items known to have been seized at Maqdala have been returned, with about 80 of those items kept in the British Museum’s collection including a number of tabots believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on earth, a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant.

Crown, probably made in Gondar, Ethiopia, around 1740. Museum no. M.27-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Ethiopian government’s claim to the items was denied by the museum, but the Museum’s Director, Tristam Hunt, suggested a compromise in an interview with UK’s Guardian: “The speediest way, if Ethiopia wanted to have these items on display, is a long-term loan…that would be the easiest way to manage it.”

Hunt said there were a number of reasons why a simple return was not possible, including the legal difficulties around deaccessioning and the “philosophical case for cosmopolitanism in museum collections.”

These items include a gold crown—an important symbol of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a gold chalice, and a royal wedding dress said to have belonged to Queen Woyzaro Terunesh, the second wife of the Ethiopian emperor, Tewodros, and mother of Prince Alemayehu who was brought to England where the government assumed responsibility for his care and education. They have been on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London for the past 146 years and will be among 20 separate artifacts which will be on display for the exhibition which starts today, 5th April, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle which sought to secure the release of British hostages taken by Tewodros.

“The ownership of cultural property is a complex one and there is no one strategy that can be applied to the returning of items.” Hunt told the Guardian: “You have to take it item by item and you have to take it history by history. Once you unpick the histories of the collections it becomes a great deal more complicated and challenging.”

Dress, around 1860, Ethiopia. Museum no. 399-1869. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The battle, according to historical records, ensued in the mid-19th century when Emperor Tewodros decided to modernize his empire, Abyssinia, by opening up relations with the UK, but had his requests for military assistance ignored.

In protest, the emperor detained the British consul and other foreigners, and Britain reacted by sending an army of 13,000 British and Indian troops, 26,000 camp followers, and 40,000 animals, led by Gen. Robert Napier to the emperor’s fortress in Maqdala.

The Emperor committed suicide rather than be captured, and his fortress was destroyed. British forces left with manuscripts, crowns, crosses, chalices, religious icons, royal and ecclesiastic vestments, shields and arms.

Historians say 15 elephants and 200 mules were needed to cart away all the loot from Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros II’s northern citadel capital.

Left to right: Carte de visite depicting Emperor Tewodros II, 19th century. Museum no. 2894-1934. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; ‘General Robert Cornelis Napier’, photograph byJulia Margaret Cameron, 1868. Museum no. RPS.715-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The offer of the long-term loan was however, welcomed by Prof Andreas Eshete, a former president of Addis Ababa University who co-founded AFROMET. “This can only be a great improvement on what has happened before,” he said to the Guardian. 

Eshete hoped by taking this first step it might also educate the British public about the merit of returning objects: “Once they see they are used in a proper way and in a way that is accessible to not only the Ethiopian public but the international public…people may well change their mind about the value of holding on to them for ever.”

Necklace, before 1868, Ethiopia. Museum no. 408-1869. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Ethiopian ambassador to the UK, Hailemichael Aberra Afework, was quoted in an interview saying, “We are delighted with the new partnership between Ethiopia and the V&A and look forward to working together in the future to our mutual benefit.

Although Ethiopians are boiling with anger over Hunt’s diplomatic comments, t
he V&A says the 20 exhibits going on display will allow a new audience to appreciate the beauty of their craftsmanship, with examples of intricate and skilled metalwork and textiles, and to reflect on their controversial history.

“As custodians of these Ethiopian treasures, we have a responsibility to celebrate the beauty of their craftsmanship, shine a light on their cultural and religious significance and reflect on their living meaning, while being open about how they came to Britain. Maqdala 1868 marks the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing dialogue about the history of these objects and their place in our national collection today.”

Maqdala 1868 will run from 5 April 2018 to July 2019. 2018 also marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emperor Tewodros.