The debate on whether objects removed from their cultural provenance, usually to be publicly exhibited in a museum, should be returned to their place of origin has been taken a notch higher with the demand by Ethiopia that artefacts currently on exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London should be returned on a permanent basis.
The discussion began in earnest back in 2007 when Ethiopia made a formal request for the return of hundreds of artefacts and manuscripts from different British museums. The objects in question had been looted by British troops following the 1868 capture of Maqdala, the capital city of Emperor Tewodros II of the country then called Abyssinia. A British expedition was sent to free British hostages held in Maqdala by Tewedros, during which the imperial fortress was destroyed, the emperor committed suicide, and the royal treasures were removed in chests carried and pulled on carts by elephants and mules.
At the time, Ethiopia’s formal request was refused but the matter has evolved since the opening of the V&A’s exhibition “Maqdala 1868” last month, where some twenty objects are on view, among which a gold crown and a dress that belonged to the empress, Tiruwork Wube.
With the question still open, the museum director, Tristram Hunt, announced that the best way for the objects to be visible in Ethiopia was for them to be returned on the basis of a long-term loan, an offer that the Ethiopian ambassador to Great Britain seemed to welcome, when he said, “We are delighted with the new partnership between Ethiopia and the V&A and look forward to working together in the future to our mutual benefit”. But since then the government has appointed a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and a new culture minister, Fozia Amin, and the ambassador has announced, “My government is not interested in loans, it is interested in having those objects returned”. How the matter will progress is still to be decided.
The affair is given extra spice by the fact that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has stated that it will be a priority during his mandate to return cultural artefacts to Africa that arrived in France during the colonial period. You can be sure that the British Museum will be paying very close attention to developments as its tenure of the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles is under constant pressure.