In response to our original request, we received just seven pages of documentation in early February, most of which was already in the public domain. The Art Newspaper then submitted a second request, emphasising that we would like to see the original documentation in the files. Four weeks later 21 pages were provided, with a few details blacked out. This represented around half the papers, with the main exclusion being correspondence with the Ethiopian church in London. We did, however, receive a copy of a letter from Abba Paulos, the Patriarch of Ethiopia, requesting the return of the museum’s tabots (or holy wooden tablets). The Patriarch’s signature is accompanied by an impressive rubber stamp bearing the text “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” Further correspondence suggested that the Patriarch was content for the tabots to be stored in London under church control (see below).
The papers disclosed little new information which was not included in our earlier detailed article on Maqdala (October 2004, No. 151, p. 15, 18-9). To be fair to the museum, this was mainly because it had been very open when we were preparing our original report. Last month director Neil MacGregor pointed out that it is “difficult to resolve contentious issues without being able to have private conversations; this is recognised by the FOI Act in section 36”.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The British Museum responds to Ethiopian restitution claims'