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British Museum to return Ethiopian emperor’s locks of hair

Locks of hair belonging to the widely revered Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II will be repatriated after a request from Addis Ababa, the National Army Museum in the United Kingdom has announced.



The repatriation of their artefacts has become a huge priority for many African countries in the last decade. A study by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, recommended that French museums give back works that were taken without consent. This was based on estimations that up to 90 percent of African art is outside the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts, reported the news agency AFP.

The call for the repatriation of the remains of Emperor Tewodros II from the National Army Museum began last year. At the time Ethiopia’s minister for culture and tourism, Dr Hirut Woldemariam, told Associated Press, “Displaying human parts on websites and in museums is inhumane.”

This is particularly insensitive as Emperor Tewodros II committed suicide in his fortress when the British won the Battle of Magdala at the end of the British Expedition to Abyssinia in April 1868. The emperor led the Abyssinians in the battle before his demise, resulting in his immortalisation.

The National Army Museum, which acquired the hair in 1959 through a donation by relatives of an artist who had painted the emperor on his deathbed, has announced they are ready to return the artefact: “Our decision to repatriate is very much based on the desire to inter the hair within the tomb alongside the emperor,” Terri Dendy, the National Army Museum’s head of collections, standards and care, said in a statement. The tomb is at a monastery in northern Ethiopia.


Read: Reflections on Ethiopia’s stolen treasures on display in a London museum

This comes at the end of a year-long commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala. These events have been fraught with controversy. Last year, another institution, the Victoria and Albert Museum, was criticised over its exhibit in which 20 items taken after the military expeditions, including a gold crown and a royal wedding dress, were put on display.

Yonas Desta, director-general of Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, told AP that the decision to return the emperor’s hair is “a great start, both in encouraging the British toward looking into the possibilities of returning our looted antiquities and also the Ethiopian stakeholders, whose decades-long, painstaking efforts can actually bear fruit.”

This development has prompted Ethiopians to also seek the return of the bones of the emperor’s son, Prince Alemayehu. The prince was taken to Britain. When he died there at age 18, he was buried at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Although the timeline of the repatriation of the Emperor Tewodros’s locks of hair is still unclear, the Ethiopian Embassy in London said it would continue to communicate with the National Army Museum.