UK museums face controversial Ethiopian legacy: The Maqdala materials at the British Museum, the V&A, and the British Library

The Art Newspaper reveals that sacred Maqdala tablets are hidden away in a sealed store of the British Museum


British Museum (BM) director Neil MacGregor has decided that there is one small group of objects within his care that no one, not even he, should be allowed to see. These are tabots, which are regarded by Ethiopian Christians as representing the original Ark of the Covenant, the wooden chest which once housed the Ten Commandments. The Ark was placed in the Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon in the 10th century BC, and the Ethiopian Orthodox church believes that it was later taken to Aksum, in the north of the country.

Tabots are wooden tablets which must be hidden from view, and should only be seen by the senior clergy. It is highly sacrilegious for them to be viewed by other believers, let alone non-believers. There are 11 tabots at the BM, 10 of which are part of a much larger group of Ethiopian objects which were seized at the battle of Maqdala (Magdala) in 1868, which led to the suicide of Emperor Tewodros (Theodorus). Thousands of his treasures were looted, many of which ended up in museums in the UK.

According to the recent history of the BM, published by the museum and written by former director David Wilson, “one of the less glorious episodes, in today’s terms, was the trustees’ involvement in the punitive expedition to Abyssinia”. It is the only time that the museum sent a curator to collect with an army expedition. Legally, however, the museum’s ownership has never been seriously questioned.

The Art Newspaper can reveal that the BM’s tabots were moved earlier this year from its ethnography store in Hackney to their own special room in the basement of the museum’s main building. They were carried by a senior member of the Ethiopian church in Britain and were covered during the transportation. Once inside the special room, and alone, the priest placed the tabots, wrapped in cloth, on a shelf covered with conservation-quality purple velvet. No museum staff, not even curators or conservators, are permitted to enter the locked room.

It is, of course, somewhat pointless for a museum to hold objects that can never be seen by scholars, let alone by the general public. Delicate discussions are therefore underway for a long-term solution.

The BM has begun discussions which could lead to the loan of the tabots to the Ethiopian Orthodox church in London, possibly on a renewable five-year basis.

The tabots would then be housed securely in the London church, where they would remain out of view. A loan would avoid the legal constraints on deaccessioning by the BM. It is also evident that keeping the tabots in the UK would avoid problems that might arise from a loan to Ethiopia, since there could well be pressure to retain these tabots indefinitely.

Visiting Addis Ababa

Mr MacGregor visited Ethiopia in February, and this trip helped clarify his views. The tabots are only one aspect of wider concerns about the Maqdala treasures and the BM holds another 150 objects. “It became apparent that it was vital to understand the two strands of pressure for restitution”, he explained.

The organised restitution campaign is run by the Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (Afromet), which was founded in 1999 by Professor Richard Pankhurst, a distinguished scholar and son of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst.

Based at Addis Ababa University, Afromet presents a reasoned case for “retrieving priceless treasures looted during the British invasion”. It is particularly concerned with the secular achievements of Tewodros. The University’s Institute of Ethiopian Studies runs a museum, which is the country’s main depository for art and ethnography.

The second institution calling for restitution is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which wants to see the return of the tabots, which had been removed by Tewodros from various churches in Ethiopia. Although the looting which took place at Maqdala would be totally unacceptable under present international law (looting was outlawed by the 1899 Hague Convention on War), the seizure of holy objects from Ethiopia’s Christian Church now appears particularly reprehensible.

The Ethiopian government has tended to avoid direct involvement in the dispute between the restitution groups and foreign museums. In legal terms, no official claims have been made for restitution at a governmental level, at least in recent times. Nevertheless, the government would like to see an exhibition of Maqdala treasures in Addis Ababa.

The BM is legally unable to deaccession and, in any case, Mr MacGregor and his trustees are against it in principle (except for Nazi-era loot). At present, the museum has no plans to permanently return Maqdala objects to Ethiopia, although it is eager to lend. There are practical difficulties over loans, however, since at present there are no museums in Ethiopia with the necessary environmental and security conditions.

The Institute of Ethiopian Studies would probably be a suitable place for any display of Maqdala material—although this would have to await improvements to its building. The BM is keen to develop closer links with the institute. It has been been in touch with the Headley Trust, a Sainsbury charity, which has agreed to help fund a manuscripts conservation study.

The V&A’s Ethiopian treasures

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) also has a substantial Maqdala collection, including four important objects which are in a special category. They do not belong to the museum, but are on long-term loan from the British government. A gold crown and gold chalice were in 1872 lent by the Secretary of State for India, which mounted the punitive expedition, and are currently on loan from the Treasury. A shield and silver processional cross have been on loan from the Admiralty (now Ministry of Defence) since 1868.

The V&A takes the position that the deposition of these four objects is “entirely a matter for the government”. The crown, chalice and cross were on display in the sacred silver gallery, which closed in August and will reopen next summer. The shield was in the arms and armour gallery, which closed in 2002 and will remain shut for several years. All can be seen by appointment.

One important object has already been returned from the V&A. In 1924 the British government wanted to give the empress an honour, but senior honours were not available to females, so it was decided to present her with a crown from Maqdala. There was discussion of giving her the gold crown which was on loan from the government to the V&A, but instead the museum suggested presenting her with a less important silver-gilt royal crown which, according to the accession register, had been given by the Secretary of State for India in 1869. V&A official W.R. Barker wrote about the silver-gilt crown in unflattering terms: “It is a rude barbaric object and I cannot imagine that, except as a curiosity, it is of the slightest value to the Museum”.

Our examination of V&A archives reveals that it was later assumed that the four items on loan would also be returned. Director Sir Eric Maclagan wrote in 1941: “These objects are definitely not Museum property but belong to the Treasury; and I think I am right in saying that the [Ethiopian] Patriarch has at intervals appealed to successive Archbishops of Canterbury to get them back... We still have the Patriarch’s gold crown and the gold chalice in our keeping. I imagine they will be returned if Haile Selassie is restored to his throne after the war; but I hope no one will ask awkward questions about them at the moment”.

In addition to the four major treasures on loan, the V&A holds around 50 other Maqdala objects. These are not normally on display, but can also be seen by appointment. They were mainly acquired in 1868-70 and, like the rest of the museum’s collection, cannot be deaccessioned.

UK museums

Although Maqdala material is scattered widely, the largest holdings are in three collections: the BM, V&A and British Library. They have each recently set up internal inquiries into their holdings, and informal discussions are being held between them.

In the case of the BM, the current thinking is that the collection came “through means which, though not exceptional at the time, are considered inappropriate in the 21st century”. A museum spokesman explained: “What is important now is that public benefits can derive from the presence of these remarkable examples of Ethiopian material culture within a world museum”. It has also been decided to put more Ethiopian material on show, and last autumn a small display was established in Room 66, including four objects from Maqdala. Two particularly important items were already on view in the new Sainsbury African Galleries—an imperial shield and a silk hanging.

At the V&A, the trustees have recently discussed Maqdala. A particular focus has been the status of the four objects on loan from the government. With regard to its own collection, a V&A spokesperson stressed: “The museum has had no formal claims for Ethiopian objects. Our policy is to consider carefully any case that comes to us, and to provide access both to the collection and its documentation”.

The British Library holds a large collection of manuscripts, around 350 of which came from Maqdala. One, an 18th century Book of Isiah, is currently on show in the “treasures” display and the rest can be consulted on application. A spokesman explained: “There is no change in our policy. The manuscripts are freely available for study. We do not believe that the originals should be returned to Ethiopia, but any question of restitution is ultimately a responsibility for government”. The British Library, like most national museums, is not permitted to deaccession.

The Royal Collection also has important Maqdala material, including a small number of illuminated manuscripts in the Royal Library at Windsor. In 1965, during the Queen’s visit to Addis Ababa, she returned a royal cap and silver seal.

The University of Edinburgh library is currently considering the status of its 11 Ethiopian manuscripts, four of which were definitely acquired at Maqdala. A panel has been established to examine the question, but so far the university has taken the position that they should not be returned.

Since 2002, five objects have been returned from Britain: two by private owners, one by an Edinburgh church, and two which were purchased by Afromet supporters on the art market. Although the Afromet website has detailed information on Maqdala recoveries, no details are given of where the objects are now—and what is on display (where, for example, is the crown which was returned from the V&A in 1925?).

The queen’s dress

There is now widespread agreement that the presentation of Maqdala material and its context needs reassessing, and we found one telling example on the V&A’s own website. Search the 16,000 images from its collection, and the single Ethiopian object is a dress which it is believed once belonged to Woyzaro Terunesh, the favourite wife of Tewodros. In the accompanying text, using language reminiscent of the 1860s, the emperor is described as “a former bandit” and even his suicide is put in a negative light (“to avoid capture”). There is no explanation of the fate of the unfortunate queen—or why her embroidered dress was “taken by British troops”.

Contemporary books tell part of the story. Just after the attack, Queen Terunesh and her young son had taken refuge in a hut, but according to Clements Markham, who was present on the expedition, some British soldiers “were allowed to get in and grossly insult her”. Henry Stanley, the American journalist at Maqdala, reported on how the body of her husband was treated: “I found another mob of officers and men, rudely jostling each other in the endeavour to get possession of a small piece of Theodore’s blood-stained shirt”.

After arranging the burial of her husband, the 26-year-old queen said that it was the last wish of the emperor that their son “should be taken charge of by the English”. By this point Terunesh was being treated courteously and well cared for, but Hormuzd Rassam reported that she appeared “silent and dejected”. The 26-year-old woman developed a lung disease and died just a month after the battle.

Queen Terunesh’s dress ended up the property of the Secretary of State for India, who donated it to the V&A. The dress is not normally on display, for conservation reasons, but is temporarily on show in the dress gallery until January. Although Terunesh’s dress is of obvious interest to textile specialists, it has a deeper historical significance which is not apparent from the museum’s caption.

When we asked about the caption, the V&A took immediate action and the text was changed within a few hours. A museum spokesman explained: “We continually reassess the information on our website and object labels, and adjust the content if entries are inaccurate or misleading. In this case, we have amended the text”.

The current re-evaluation of Maqdala collections is welcome. Many of the items cannot be displayed for conservation reasons and others of lesser importance for space reasons, and there are normally less than a dozen Maqdala items on view in the three main UK institutions—out of over 500 objects. One positive move might be for the collections with Maqdala material to get together for a cataloguing project to publish them in a single volume and on the web—excluding, of course, image of the sacred tabots.