UK Museum Rejects Ethiopia’s Demand for Return of Stolen Treasures, But Offers to Loan Them Back

Stolen Ethiopian Artifacts

Among the stolen Ethiopian artifacts is a gold crown and a royal wedding dress. (Image courtesy of the V&A Museum)

Officials with the Albert and Victoria Museum in London are mulling the return of dozens of artifacts, including a golden crown and a royal wedding dress, swiped from Ethiopia by the British nearly 150 years ago. The catch? They will only be returned to Africa on a long-term loan.

According to The Guardian, Ethiopia lodged a formal restitution claim in 2007 for the return of hundreds of manuscripts and artifacts being held by a number of British institutions. The artifacts were stolen after the 1868 capture of Maqdala, the capital of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then Abyssinia.

That request was ultimately denied, but a forthcoming exhibit of the Maqdala treasures at the V&A has prompted museum director Tristam Hunt to offer a sort of compromise.

“The speediest way, if Ethiopia wanted to have these items on display, is a long-term loan … that would be the easiest way to manage it,” Hunt told the newspaper.

The loan proposal has been met with approval from the Ethiopian state, but Hunt warned of the complexities that still lay ahead, saying it was important not to assume the move was a “blanket policy.”

“You have to take it item by item and you have to take it history by history,” he continued. “Once you unpick the histories of the collections it becomes a great deal more complicated and challenging.”

The new Maqdala display opened Thursday, April 5, and features 20 items that were plundered after a military expedition to assure the release of British soldiers taken hostage by Tewodros, according to The Guardian. Hundreds of other artifacts were stolen from Maqdala amid the capital’s destruction and the emperor’s treasury cleared using 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry it all out.

So far, the Ethiopian state and its campaigners have identified nearly 12 British institutions that now own the artifacts, including the V&A Museum and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Hunt has cited various reasons why the treasures can’t simply be returned to Africa, including the “legal difficulties around deaccessioning and the ‘philosophical case for cosmopolitanism in museum collections,’ ” The Guardian reported.

Though the offer is short of what they want, some Ethiopians have welcomed the idea of a long-term loan. Professor Andreas Eshete, a former President of Addis Ababa University, said he thinks the loan would be “great gift to the country.”

“This can only be a great improvement on what has happened before,” Eshete told the newspaper. “There are certain things that are important to Ethiopia that are never on display in the UK.”

“Once [the British public] sees they’re used in a proper way and in a way that is accessible to not only the Ethiopian public but the international public … people may well change their mind about the value of holding on to them forever,” he added.

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