Culture

British museum under investigation for hiding Ethiopian artefacts

Ethiopia

The artifacts are sacred wooden and stone altar plaques that were stolen by British soldiers during the Battle of Magdala. The artifacts have never been shown to the public, and tradition says that only priests from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church can see them, barring them from being examined by museum curators and administrators.

A regulatory office is investigating the British Museum over claims the institution has been overly secretive about 11 Ethiopian artefacts in its collection that were looted by soldiers in 1868.

The artifacts are sacred wooden and stone altar plaques that were stolen by British soldiers during the Battle of Magdala. The artifacts have never been shown to the public, and tradition says that only priests from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church can see them, barring them from being examined by the Museum's curators and administrators.

A complaint has been lodged with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) arguing that the British Museum failed to disclose material relating to the artefacts following a freedom of information request. The request was submitted last August by the non-profit organization "Returning Heritage".

The organization indicated that the Museum's response removed relevant material and heavily redacted other information related to the institution's international discussions on Ethiopian artifacts. Whereas the British Museum Act 1963 prohibits the sale, exchange, distribution or disposal of objects except in very limited circumstances. Return Legacy argued that the unclear status of other disputed objects in its collection meant that the Ethiopian artefacts could now be returned.

"The act is very clear that the museum (cannot) return objects," Managing Editor of Returning Heritage Lewis McNaught told The Guardian. "But there are some legal exceptions within the act. And one of those exceptions allows administrators to return certain items if they deem them 'unfit to keep.'"

According to The Guardian's report, Returning Heritage believes that restrictions preventing the display and study of artefacts – including the British Museum's highly secured basement storage, where only Ethiopian clerics can enter – fit this exclusion category.

The organization sought information from meetings where British Museum trustees discussed the sacred objects to understand why senior officials do not believe they can be legally returned.

"Our client is seeking information from the museum that many would argue should be in the public domain by default," the organisation's legal counsel, Tom Short, told the Guardian. "[It] concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest."

The British Museum has the largest holdings of its kind in the UK. Last September a tabot taken during the same 1868 battle was returned to a kinse service after a university lecturer spotted the item in an online sale, failed to convince the seller to return it and then bought it with that intention.

In February, Westminster Abbey said its dean and chapter, the church's governing body, had "decided in principle" that a stolen Ethiopian tablet sealed inside an altar should be returned. It was also taken during the Battle of Magdala and was donated to the abbey.

In 2019, the British Museum said its long-term ambition was a loan of the tabots to an Ethiopian Orthodox church in London. / Art News