After French President Macron’s bold stance on the repatriation of African artifacts currently being held by French museums, the rest of the world and institutions alike seem to be following suit. In the run-up to a display of Maqdala artefacts opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a compromise to Ethiopia’s rejected restitution claim in 2007 has been offered by the museum’s director, Tristram Hunt. Hunt told The 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.”
Ethiopia lodged a formal restitution claim for hundreds of important and beautiful manuscripts and artefacts being held by various British institutions, all plundered after the 1868 capture of Maqdala, the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then Abyssinia.
Hunt, however, went on to say that the issue was complex and it was important not to extrapolate a “blanket policy”. He said, “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.”
The offer of a long-term loan has been welcomed by Prof Andreas Eshete, a former president of Addis Ababa University who co-founded The Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (Afromet), a group that campaigns for the return of the Maqdala treasures.
“This can only be a great improvement on what has happened before,” he said. “There are certain things that are important to Ethiopia that are never on display in the UK, so I think a loan, on a long-term basis, would be a great gift to the country.”
Eshete hopes this first step might also educate the British public about the merit of returning objects to their countries of origin: “Once they see they are used in a proper way and in a way that is accessible to not only the Ethiopian public but to the international public, people may well change their mind about the value of holding onto them forever.”
Maqdala on display
The Maqdala 1868 exhibition, which will run from 5 April 2018 to July 2019, will show 20 items taken after a military expedition to secure the release of British hostages taken by Emperor Tewodros. The British victory culminated in the emperor’s suicide and the destruction of his fortress.
It required 15 elephants and 200 mules to transport hundreds of artefacts plundered from the mountain capital of Maqdala and the emperor’s treasury. Campaigners have identified about a dozen UK institutions that own them, from the V&A in London to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle to a regimental museum in Halifax.
That the artifacts are scattered around in this way is one of the many reasons Hunt cites to explain why simply returning them is not possible at this time due to the legal difficulties around deaccessioning and the “philosophical case for cosmopolitanism in museum collections”.
The museum has been working closely with the Ethiopian embassy before the anniversary display. The ambassador, Hailemichael Aberra Afework, told The Guardian: “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.
“Future cooperation will be especially beneficial in terms of capacity building and skills transfer in the care and maintenance of cultural heritage, in which the V&A has extensive experience.”
The ball is rolling on the repatriation of artifacts and loans such as this may put pressure on other institutions to follow suit. The British Museum, for example, has about 80 objects from Maqdala, including a number of tabots – believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on earth, and a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant.
The ball is rolling on the repatriation of artifacts and loans such as this may put pressure on other institutions to follow suit.