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British Museum, V&A, British Library and more face restitution claims as Ethiopia moves for Maqdala treasures

Treasures lost in the punitive sacking of Maqdala are subject to restitution claims

The Ethiopian government has made its first formal request for the return of treasures seized during the battle of Maqdala. Claims have been made against the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the British Library, Cambridge University Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The claims were lodged earlier this year in a letter from president Girma Wolde Giorgis, sent via the Ethiopian ambassador in London. The initiative was not publicised.

The battle of Maqdala took place in 1868, after the kidnapping of several Britons. Emperor Tewodros was defeated, and towards the end of the fighting he committed suicide. Large quantities of treasure, manuscripts and religious objects were seized by the punitive expedition, some officially on behalf of the British government and the rest by individual officers. It would now be regarded as quite wrong for cultural objects to be “looted” but attitudes were quite different in the 19th century.

Much of the Maqdala material was acquired by UK museums and libraries. Four years ago The Art Newspaper published a detailed account of their whereabouts (October 2004, pp15, 17-19). Campaigning groups such as Afromet have long called for the return of the Maqdala loot, but until now this had not been formally backed by the Ethiopian government.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, met ambassador Berhanu Kebede to discuss the claim. There was a further meeting between a curator and an embassy official to talk about cooperation over curatorial matters. V&A director Mark Jones also met the ambassador.

Altogether, the British Museum, V&A and British Library hold over 500 objects seized at Maqdala. None of them is permitted to deaccession (ownership of four major objects, including a golden crown, was transferred from the UK government to the V&A in 2005).

Their most important Maqdala material is normally on display (subject to conservation constraints) and the remainder is freely accessible on request, with one important exception. At the request of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, sacred wooden tabots [tablets] are kept in a special store, and are not even accessible to museum staff.

The university libraries at Oxford and Cambridge have received the Ethiopian letter. The Royal Library also holds important Maqdala material, although this has not been subject to a government claim.

Ambassador Kebede told The Art Newspaper that “we have cordial relations with the UK and we continue to pursue this important cultural issue through diplomatic channels.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Ethiopia moves for Maqdala treasures'