Ethiopian restitution claims at the British Museum: The Art Newspaper Investigates

British Museum holds collection of objects seized at battle of Maqdala


Background: British forces overthrew the Emperor of Ethiopia at the battle of Maqdala in 1868 and seized his treasures. Many ended up at the British Museum. Since then there have been periodic requests for their repatriation to Ethiopia.

Our request: Full information on objects seized at Maqdala now in the British Museum.

What we got: Seven pages—a three-page listing of Maqdala objects, three pages of descriptive labels for six items on display, and a one-page note on our queries. We had expected more material, as the British Museum had been helpful and open when we published a detailed report on Maqdala last year (October 2004, no. 151, pp. 15, 18-9). Arguably, restitution issues are much more sensitive than acquisitions.

Surprises: None.

What we didn’t get: There were no “original” documents, other than the one-page summary note prepared for us. The list of inventory numbers should have always been available and the labels could be read by any visitor at the museum.

What next: We asked the British Museum for the report on its director’s visit to Addis Ababa in 2004, correspondence with Ethiopian church officials, letters to the Foreign Office, and internal museum papers on how the issue of Maqdala should be handled. We will report the museum’s response in our April issue.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ethiopian restitution claims'