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A crown from the Maqdala exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Photo: V&A Museum.

Ethiopia Calls for Restitution of Artifacts from British Museums

Following the opening of an exhibition of Ethiopian artifacts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London earlier this month, director Tristram Hunt pledged to return cultural heritage objects to Ethiopia in a long-term loan agreement. At the time, the Ethiopian ambassador Hailemichael Aberra Afework’s favorable remarks, as well as his praise for the institution’s decision to put these items on display, were perceived as his acceptance of long-term loans as an adequate compromise. In a recent interview with the Art Newspaper, Afework clarified his position: The items must be fully restituted.

“My government is not interested in loans, it is interested in having those objects returned,” Afework said. In a segment from the Art Newspaper’s weekly podcast, he states that the government’s main objective is to bring these treasures home and to have them displayed in the country’s own museums and churches, which have been the “custodians of religious objects for centuries.” While a long-term loan is a start, it is not enough.

The ambassador also expressed his hopefulness that the artifacts will eventually be returned. “Times change and so do attitudes,” he said. “Many people in Britain—the public at large, media, higher education, people interested in culture—they are all sympathetic to Ethiopia’s demand for the return of the objects.” He added that in order to make progress, there need to be government-to-government talks, which have already begun. Since taking office in May 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron has declared that the repatriation of artifacts to Africa would be a “top priority” during his term.

Afework thanked the Victoria and Albert Museum for organizing the exhibition and for making the items visible. The show features about twenty artifacts that were taken by the British Army after the battle of Maqdala in 1868. Among the objects on display are a dress that once belonged to the Ethiopian empress Tiruwork Wube and a gold crown alloyed with silver and copper, with filigree work and glass beads.

It is uncertain whether Ethiopia will accept the loan agreement proposed by Hunt. Since he announced the institution’s commitment to loaning the artifacts, Ethiopia has appointed a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and a new minister of culture and tourism, Fozia Amin.

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