A gold filigree crown currently on display at the V&A's Maqdala 1868 exhibition. Image (c) V&A

Ethiopian government welcomes V&A's Maqdala loan offer

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 06.04.2018
Embassy calls on other British institutions follow suit
The Ethiopian Embassy has hailed the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) offer to return its collection of Maqdala objects to the country on long-term loan as a “step in the right direction”.

The objects were looted by British troops during the 1868 Battle of Maqdala in what has come to be regarded as one of the British military’s most shameful episodes. Hundreds of priceless artefacts plundered from the Ethiopian city, including gold regalia and religious manuscripts, ended up in institutions across the UK. Previous efforts to repatriate the Maqdala objects have been rejected.

The V&A’s director Tristram Hunt mooted the possibility of loaning back the objects in an interview with the Guardian earlier this week to mark the opening of Maqdala 1868, a year-long display of 20 items from the museum’s Maqdala collection.

He told the newspaper: “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.”
In a statement yesterday, the Ethiopian Embassy, which has worked closely with the V&A on the exhibition, said it viewed the “goodwill gesture as a step in the right direction and a springboard for further collaborations around conservation, research and curatorial exchange”.

It called on other British institutions that hold Maqdala objects – including the British Museum, the British Library and the National Archives of Scotland – to follow suit, saying: “The embassy avails itself of this auspicious occasion and calls on all custodians of items taken away from Maqdala to proudly take a leaf out of the V&A’s book.”

The co-founder of the Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures, Andreas Eshete, also welcomed Hunt’s offer, telling the Guardian it was “a great improvement on what had happened before”.

Hunt told the newspaper that legal difficulties related to deaccessioning, as well as the “philosophical case for cosmopolitanism in museum collections”, meant a long-term loan was a better option than formally repatriating the items.

But others have questioned the museum’s stance. In a subsequent letter to the Guardian, one commentator said: “Would it not be better to acknowledge the circumstances in which the artefacts were acquired by returning them unconditionally, while at the same time making financial reparations for the damage done? This might be followed by reciprocal arrangements for two-way long-term loans, leading to genuine cosmopolitanism.”

The Ethiopian-American author Maaza Mengiste, who has addressed the Maqdala case in her writing, told Museums Journal: "Though this is a hopeful sign that what belongs to Ethiopia will finally be returned to the country, I do not think those of us who want to see full repatriation of the objects should rest. I thank the V&A at the same time as I challenge it – and all museums - to understand that beyond the costs and the paperwork and the logistics, we are talking about making amends with a violent history to ensure a more just future."

The V&A's exhibition has also led to renewed calls for Windsor Castle to repatriate the remains of Prince Alemayehu, the orphaned royal whose parents, Emperor Tewodros II and Queen Terunesh, died during and shortly after the battle. The young prince was brought to the UK by British troops and never allowed to return to Ethiopia, despite repeated requests. He died of pleurisy at the age of 18.

Speaking at the opening of Maqdala 1868, the writer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay said: “That is my mission, in my lifetime, that in some way the compassion of the British and the eagerness of the Ethiopians together will allow these remains to go back to Ethiopia.”


Updated to include a comment from Maaza Mengiste.