Ethiopia: The fight to repatriate artefacts is far from over

By Samuel Getachew
Posted on Tuesday, 3 November 2020 13:50

Private viewing at the V&A museum of the Maqdala 1868 exhibit of around 20 Ethiopian artefacts seized by British troops 150 years ago in Maqdala, Ethiopia. (Twitter / @EthioEmbassyUK)

There is growing pressure on the British government to return various artefacts and treasures looted from Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century. Though the Ethiopian government has been in talks with authorities in London for their permanent return and pledged to bring lawful and political pressures to bear, its efforts have borne little success so far.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), British Museum, British Library, the Royal Library and the Bodleian Library have displayed, or still display, most of these artefacts in an exhibit known as Maqdala, a battle in 1868 during which many British forces looted items.

This came about after the army of the European giant defeated the then Abyssinia Empire during a military expedition to secure the release of British hostages taken by Tewodros II, who committed suicide after refusing to surrender.

Changing tide

Among those still in display at British museums are a gold crown, an important symbol of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a chalice, a dress and jewellery belonging to Abyssinian Empress, a necklace and other treasures.

There is no dispute about whether or not they were borrowed; they were looted and that’s a story we have tried to tell very openly and very honestly at the V&A.

Last year, the British Museum returned locks of hair taken from the body of Tewodros II as he lay dead.

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Crown from the V&A Collection (

Tim Reeve, the Deputy Director of the V&A, told the Cheltenham Literature Festival that the move to return items was part of the V&A’s work to “decolonise” its collections and to have a more honest conversation about history.

“There is no dispute about whether or not they were borrowed; they were looted and that’s a story we have tried to tell very openly and very honestly at the V&A,” he said.

Reeve said the consultations centred on how the treasures could be returned as the V&A and other national museums were forbidden under UK law to return items in perpetuity.

“A long loan of those objects as a sort of an initial step is the kind of thing we want to discuss if the right kind of conditions [are] there and they are in agreement with the Ethiopian Embassy,” he said.

Why Ethiopia refuses loan arrangement

However, the Ethiopian government continues to refuse to accept a loan arrangement.

“It is very depressing that the museum still wants to lend us our own heritage,” says an official working at the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, says efforts by the government to secure the return of the artefacts have been paused due to other pressing issues.

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“This is not something that should be handled by officials. It is more political and we expect that it will be addressed diplomatically by the foreign ministries of the two countries. So far, no formal request or response has been lodged with V&A,” the official added.

Once home…

While the battle to get these items returned to Ethiopia is still waging, another one is brewing in the country. There is still growing concern with Ethiopia’s ability to safely host some of these artefacts once they are returned home.

It is imperative that looted artefacts be returned to their country of origin.

The Axum Obelisk, a 1,700-year-old artefact, was returned to Ethiopia with much fanfare from Italy in 2005 after a half-century negotiation. Sadly, similar to most famous Ethiopian heritages it stands in ruins today and awaits the nod from Western nations for its reconstruction.

Local Ethiopian farmers and their camels walk past the Obelisk steles area in Axum, on Saturday, April 2, 2005. The first out of three pieces of the famous Obelisk stolen by Mussolini’s army was returned by the Italians. (AP Photo/Boris Heger)

Abel Assefa, a researcher of Ethiopian heritage, is hopeful Ethiopia’s artefacts will soon return.“The most important thing is [that] Ethiopia needs to build a good heritage management system for the eventual returns of these important artefacts. The value they bring to us Ethiopians, if they are properly preserved, is not just cultural; but will give us, local researchers, an opportunity to study them locally without necessarily venturing to other nations”, he tells The Africa Report.

But above all, the real battle remains the return of these items as Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian-American writer points out.

“It is imperative that looted artefacts be returned to their country of origin. Those artefacts do not belong to the European countries that plundered and stole them, no matter how long ago it was. Those items, representative of Africa’s rich culture and history, were taken to showcase European power and might. They are continuing to do this now. Museums are not neutral spaces, and until all looted items are returned to their country of origin, those spaces are actively engaged in the ongoing work of the colonial endeavour”

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