How did London’s world-famous museums acquire their magnificent permanent collections? Did they buy the fantastical objects they display? Ask for them nicely? Receive them as gifts? In some cases, yes, they absolutely did and it was all above board and ethical.
But in a lot of cases, absolutely not. And the stories of how those objects came to be in British possession are often shocking and deeply shameful; they were acquired through conquest, colonialism, violence, war. Many were – essentially – stolen, looted. As a result, there are growing calls for them to be sent back to the countries they were taken from, for historic wrongs to be righted and for those treasures to be repatriated. The Maqdala Treasures, the Benin Bronzes, the Parthenon Marbles – all things that we got in dodgy circumstances, and all things their home countries want back. And as the years go by, those calls are sounding more and more like the right thing to do.
Repatriation of cultural artefacts isn’t a new thing. Artworks looted and stolen from Jewish families during the Third Reich and World War II have been given back to their rightful heirs for decades. But repatriation isn’t straightforward. There’s literally a British law forbidding it; the British Museum Act 1963 was created to make it illegal to give looted and nicked treasures back to the people we looted and nicked them from.
It’s a convenient excuse, really:
‘Can I please have this artefact back? You stole it from my ancestors when you conquered us.’
‘Sorry, it’s against the law.’
‘Didn’t you write that law?’
‘Yes. Anyway, would you like to come and see the things we looted from you? We’ve put them in a nice museum.’
But putting all these looted objects in a nice museum hasn’t stopped countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia and Greece from asking for their objects back, and in some cases even building their own museums to house them, eagerly awaiting their return. So here are the cultural artefacts, artworks and treasures that we could – and probably should – give back.
Part I: THE MAQDALA TREASURES
The Maqdala Treasures are some of the most controversial objects that are currently the subject of repatriation claims owing to the horrific way they were acquired.
The Abyssinian Expedition of 1868 saw thousands of British troops descend on the northern Ethiopian city of Maqdala (then the capital) to free missionaries and envoys taken hostage by Emperor Tewedros II. It was a rescue mission, but a punitive mission too.
The British annihilated the city, killed hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers and injured thousands more, and then helped themselves to anything of value: crowns, shields, weapons, artefacts, objects, clothing, manuscripts and even a lock of the emperor’s hair. That’s not all that was taken, though. Tewedros committed suicide as the British laid siege to his city, but his young son Prince Alemayehu survived and was brought to England as another spoil of war. He died aged 18, after living a miserable life here. He was buried at Windsor Castle.
The Maqdala Treasures were eventually distributed to museums around Britain, and they can be found in institutions like the V&A, the British Museum and the National Army Museum.
But they were controversial from the start. Prime Minister William Gladstone condemned the taking of the treasures, especially the gold crown and chalice, and ‘deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles… were thought fit to be brought away by a British army.’
Gladstone urged that they ‘be held only until they could be restored’. One of two looted crowns was given to Empress Zewiditu in 1924, though the more valuable one, obviously, was kept by the V&A. Queen Elizabeth II gave Tewodros’s royal cap to Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1960s, and the National Army Museum agreed to return the lock of Tewodros’s hair in 2019, but the vast majority of the artefacts are still in London.
But for how much longer should that be the case?
What now for the Maqdala Treasures?
The V&A websites acknowledge that the Maqdala Treasures were acquired under horrible circumstances. Former director of the V&A Tristram Hunt said: ‘As custodians of these Ethiopian treasures, we have a responsibility to celebrate the beauty of their craftsmanship, shine a light on their cultural and religious significance and reflect on their living meaning, while being open about how they came to Britain.’
The British Museum’s website says similar things about acknowledging how the path the Maqdala objects took to Britain is drenched in blood. It alsos admits that it has received repeated requests for the return of the objects, but ‘discussions with Ethiopian partners concerning the Maqdala collections are continuing and the Museum is actively invested in these.’ Meanwhile, all it’s actually offering is ‘skill-sharing initiatives’ with Ethiopian museums.
Just to prove how ludicrous the whole situation is, the British Museum’s collection includes a series of biblical tablets, considered so holy by the Ethiopian church that they aren’t allowed to be on show, which have to be housed in a location specially set aside for them, ‘created and maintained in close consultation with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’. They’re not even on display, and still they won’t be given back to the people they were looted from.
And what are the chances of them being given back? Well, here’s what George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, had to say about that recently: ‘We hear the voices calling for restitution. But creating this global British Museum was the dedicated work of many generations. Dismantling it must not become the careless act of a single generation’. He’s right, really, colonialism and the cultural looting that came with it really was the dedicated work of many generations. Bang on.
The argument, largely, is that we’ve built these world-class institutions that anyone on the planet can come and visit, and London is the place that will give these objects the most visibility. Which is true, but also not the point. It’s not about visibility or global access, it’s about justice.
The British Museum is up for dialogue, though, which must make everyone feel better. ‘The Museum is committed to working collaboratively with professional colleagues, members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, academics and communities associated with Ethiopia more widely to share knowledge, extend understanding and explore new perspectives on the collections from Maqdala.’ And that’s it. It’s open to discussions, but it knows exactly where those discussions will lead: absolutely nowhere.