Ethiopia Calls on London Museum to Repatriate Objects Looted 150 Years Ago [UPDATED]

Gold and gilded copper crown with glass beads, pigment and fabric, made in Ethipoa (1600–1850) (all images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Earlier this month, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) offered to return, on longterm loan, objects to Ethiopia that British troops looted 150 years ago. The arrangement was proposed ahead of an exhibition showing the museum’s collection of treasures seized at Maqdala. But the Ethiopian government says that such a gesture is not sufficient, and that it will continue to seek permanent return of the artifacts.

Speaking with the Art Newspaper last week, Ethiopian ambassador to the UK Hailemichael Aberra Afework emphasized that the V&A, along with other British museums, must give up ownership of objects taken from his country and send them back.

Gold chalice with incised inscription, made by Walda Giyorgis, Gonder, Ethiopia, (1732-1740)

“My government is not interested in loans, it is interested in having those objects returned,” Hailemichael said. “Because that is the right thing to do.” He added that he hopes to see more dialogue ensue between governments and institutions.

Plundered during the Battle of Maqdala, an attack by the British army on the mountain capital, most of the 20 objects in the V&A’s exhibition have remained in storage for decades. Maqdala 1868 represents the first time they have been gathered together for public display. The exhibition opened on April 5 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the siege, and was organized in consultation with the Ethiopian Embassy in London. Included in the display are a gilded crown, a solid gold chalice, and a wedding dress believed to have belonged to the wife of Emperor Tewodros II.

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Two days before the opening, the V&A’s director Tristram Hunt told TAN that he had made “a clear statement to the ambassador, saying that if Ethiopia is interested in pursuing the long-term loan of the Maqdala items we would stand ready to assist.” The offer represents a significant step forward in long-term debate over the treasures. In 2008, Ethiopia’s president lodged a formal request to the V&A seeking restitution of the Maqdala treasures, as well as to the British Museum, British Library, and Cambridge University, which also own objects from the 1868 looting.

Despite Hunt’s proposal, Hailemichael reiterated this claim in his interview with TAN. The ambassador said that while the public display of the artifacts allows Ethiopians to finally examine their cultural heritage, it should also make people aware that they need to be at home with “their rightful owners.” Hailemichael added that institutions around his country are ready and more than capable to receive and care for the objects, naming the National Museum in Addis Ababa as a possible host site.

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Royal Engineers, “Magdala, Abyssinia, Church” from the Abyssinia Expedition (1868-9)

However, as TAN‘s Michael Bailey reported, restitution is not currently possible as the V&A does not have the legal power to deaccession the objects. The museum did not return Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

The V&A’s offer of a long-term loan is an echo of another, recent statement by President Emmanuel Macron over African artifacts held in French cultural institutions. In November, Macron pledged to make restitution of African art a top priority. He followed up on this call last month, appointing two experts to investigate the issue and propose next steps by November 2018.

Update, 4/24, 10:30 am: The V&A sent Hyperallergic the following statement:

Throughout the process of organizing Maqdala 1868, there have been a number of discussions about further collaboration, including a long-term loan. The V&A is committed to continuing this important and wide-ranging dialogue with colleagues at the Ethiopian Embassy in London.

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that all 20 objects in Maqdala 1868 had been in storage for decades, but two of them had actually been on display elsewhere in the museum. The article has been revised to reflect this.

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