Ethiopia in Talks over the Homecoming of Looted Treasures

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The Embassy of Ethiopia in the UK has started talks with The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, over returning looted treasures in its collections, including a gold crown and royal wedding dress, taken from the country more than 150 years ago.

The talks are part of the V&A’s move to “decolonize” 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,” Tim Reeve, the deputy director of the V&A, told the Cheltenham Literature Festival, a charity group based in the UK.

Ethiopians have long campaigned for the return of the items, including advocacy works of Afromet, a campaign group for the return of Maqdala treasures, cofounded by Prof Andreas Eshete, former president of Addis Ababa University.

Hundreds of artifacts were plundered from Maqdala after a military expedition to secure the release of British hostages taken by Tewodros II. The emperor’s treasury was cleared with 15 elephants and 200 mules needed to transport them, including two locks of hair taken from the 19th-century emperor’s head.

Campaigners have identified about a dozen institutions across the UK, from the British Museum and the British Library, in London, to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The British Museum has about 80 objects from Maqdala, including a number of taboots, replicas of the Ark of covenant. However, the taboots have never been on public display because of their religious importance and can only be seen with the Ethiopian Orthodox church’s agreement.

Ethiopia’s formal restitution claim was made in 2007 for the return of the artifacts, which was refused. Two years ago, a compromise of giving the items to Ethiopia in a long-term loan was reached.

Reeve said a long-term loan is being discussed as an initial step to returning the treasures, given the V&A and other national museums were forbidden in UK law to simply return items in perpetuity.

In addition to legal difficulties around deaccessioning, experts in the area argue that there are several reasons why a simple return of the items is impossible, including the philosophical case for cosmopolitanism in museum collections that claims for historical artifacts belonging to all people of the world despite their origin.

“We are in very close discussions with the Ethiopian embassy about those artifacts and how they might in due course find their way back to Ethiopia,” he said, “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.”

Around a year ago, another British museum, The National Army Museum, had agreed to repatriate the two locks of hair taken from the emperor Tewodros’s head.