Pressure is growing on the British Museum to explain in more detail its position in response to calls to return 11 tabots to Ethiopia.
The museum has held most of the tabots – plaques sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – since they were looted by the British in the battle of Maqdala in 1868. But in recognition of their sanctity they have never been displayed, studied or photographed.
There has been a series of requests to return the objects, including appeals from two Ethiopian Church patriarchs, and a letter to last year to the museum’s trustees, signed by prominent figures such as Stephen Fry and the former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.
The British Museum says it has held “meaningful talks” with the Ethiopian Church to try and navigate these issues, and would like to lend the objects to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Great Britain.
Last month the online publication Returning Heritage highlighted the issue again by submitting a freedom of information (FOI) request to the British Museum through the law firm Leigh Day. It asks for details of all requests for the restitution of the tabots since 1990, and the responses provided by the museum to these. It also asks for details of trustee meetings where the requests were discussed.
The FOI request was sent on 1 September and the standard deadline for a response is 20 working days. But the museum has asked for further time to consider the public interest test for two qualified exemptions to disclosure, Lewis McNaught, managing editor of Returning Heritage, told Museums Journal.
In general, legislation prevents national museums from deaccessioning objects. But McNaught believes that an exemption applies due to the tabots’ circumstances. He argues they can be legally returned on the grounds they are “unfit to retain” and no longer relevant to the museum’s purpose – a view supported by a legal opinion prepared for the Scheherezade Foundation in 2021.
A statement from Returning Heritage said the museum has “provided no explanation why they refuse to apply this exemption”.
“This is probably the only group of objects that actually fits this exceptional criteria,” McNaught told Museums Journal. He added that “we have no idea whether the trustees have considered this issue”.
In addition, McNaught believes that planned changes to the Charities Act 2022 strengthen the case for restitution because they “place an onus on trustees to consider whether there are moral grounds for returning objects”.
A provision in the act, due to pass this autumn, will allow trustees of charities, including national museums, to seek authorisation from the Charity Commission for goodwill transfers of property known as ex gratia payments, if they feel compelled by a moral obligation. Another provision would allow these trustees to make ex gratia transfers of low-value property without having to first seek authorisation from the commission.
McNaught, who was previously a curator in the British Museum’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities for five years, said: “Clearly the moral case for returning [the tabots] is overwhelming. There is no financial value to these items…[but] huge spiritual value.”
He added that regarding the tabots, the British Museum has “been singularly inappropriate in the way they've managed their communication with both with Ethiopians and British supporters who have wanted the tabots to be returned”.
A spokesperson for the British Museum said: “The British Museum, the Ethiopian Church in London and Ethiopia and the National Museum in Addis Ababa enjoy long-standing and cordial relations. We also have a constructive relationship with the Ethiopian government. These relationships have provided a strong foundation for meaningful discussions.
“The British Museum recognises the significance of the tabots and has held meaningful talks with the Ethiopian Church to try and successfully navigate these sensitive issues. The museum’s sustained ambition is to lend these objects to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Great Britain where they can be cared for by the clergy within their traditions. The willingness to engage in further discussions remains and a fresh opportunity to discuss this possibility with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church would be warmly welcomed.”
They added: “We are following the progress of the new Charities Act with interest.”
Separately, George Carey recently told the Art Newspaper that he was “astonished and saddened” that Westminster Abbey is refusing to return a tabot to Ethiopia.
The abbey is a Royal Peculiar, meaning it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. This means that returning the object could require the blessing of King Charles III.
Meanwhile prime minister Liz Truss appears to have ruled out a partnership with Greece to resolve the long-running dispute over the British Museum's ownership of the Parthenon sculptures.
The proposal has the support of the museum's chairman George Osborne, who said over the summer that "a deal is to be done where we can tell both stories in Athens and in London if we both approach this without a load of preconditions".
Asked on GB News about her stance on Osborne's suggested deal, the prime minister said "I don't support that", but did not elaborate further. Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has said he plans to raise the topic with Truss in a planned meeting later this year.