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British Museum Investigated for Hiding Ethiopian Artifacts From Public Display for Over 150 Years

CC BY 2.0 / Tianjin24 / Ethiopian Orthodox priests carrying tabots during Timkat celebrations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Orthodox priests carrying tabots during Timkat celebrations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. - Sputnik Africa, 1920, 01.04.2024
The tabot is a fundamental element of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, whose primary purpose is to sanctify and consecrate a church building. Ethiopian Christians consider the tabot to be the abode of God on earth, the seat of mercy mentioned in the Bible, and a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant.
The British Museum is currently under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (the UK's information watchdog) over allegations of excessive secrecy regarding a collection of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets that have been concealed from public access at the museum for more than 150 years, Returning Heritage, a non-profit organization (NPO) that gathers information on cultural restitution, reported on Sunday.
"Returning Heritage believes the exemptions the British Museum is using to retain eleven sacred tabots that can be returned to Ethiopia without breaching the Museum’s existing governing Act have been wrongly applied. As a result, [...] we have submitted a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office," the NPO wrote.
The 11 wood and stone tabots that were looted by British soldiers after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868 (and the museum acknowledges it), have never been publicly displayed and are regarded highly sacrosanct. Even the museum's curators and trustees are forbidden from examining them.
In August 2023, Returning Heritage filed its fourth freedom of information request, but the museum's response did not include relevant material and excessively redacted other information. An internal museum review conducted at the request of the organization upheld its initial response.
"The British Museum has shown itself adept at refusing to provide information to questions they’d prefer not to answer. We hope our initiative to escalate concerns about the Museum’s collection of Ethiopian Tabots to the Information Commissioner’s Office will encourage greater transparency," the NPO said.
French-Senegalese filmmaker and actress Mati Diop speaks during a press conference for the film Dahomey presented in competition of the 74th Berlinale, Europe's first major film festival of the year, on February 18, 2024 in Berlin. - Sputnik Africa, 1920, 19.02.2024
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The organization said that the British Museum Act 1963, which prohibits the disposal of objects except in extremely limited situations, creates ambiguity over the status of other disputed artifacts. However, it asserted that the tabots could now be lawfully returned.
“The act is very explicit that the museum [can’t] return objects,” Lewis McNaught, Returning Heritage’s managing editor, told British media. “But there are some legal exemptions within the act. And one of those exemptions allows the trustees to return certain items if they consider them ‘unfit to be retained’.”
Returning Heritage made a formal request for information pertaining to meetings in which trustees discussed the tabots as it believed these discussions could provide light on their reasons for believing that the tabots cannot be lawfully returned.
"It's a mystery to us why the British Museum clings on to a group of objects so clearly unsuitable for any museum collection. Full disclosure can only benefit the Museum, whose decision-making process and reputation is still being questioned," the NPO concluded.
African societies have suffered from the centuries-long theft of priceless cultural relics by colonial powers. Museums and private collections in Europe often acquired these invaluable artifacts, erasing them from African countries' cultural heritage.
The African continent, on the other hand, has been pushing for the return of stolen antiquities; countries like Benin, Ethiopia, and Ghana have all received some of their artifacts back.
For example, in January, Ethiopia got back artifacts belonging to Emperor Tewodros II that were taken by the British Empire in 1868. And in late February, British auction house Anderson & Garland called off the sale of a shield looted from Ethiopia by British soldiers in the 19th century, following the request of the East African nation's government.