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Ethiopia Wants Its Looted Artifacts Returned And London Gives Interesting Response



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

London Responds

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.

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