British Museum could return sacred Ethiopian artefacts by exploiting decolonisation loophole

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Priests carry Tabots during a Timkat Epiphany Festival, Lalibela, Ethiopia - ERIC LAFFORGUE / Alamy Stock Photo
Priests carry Tabots during a Timkat Epiphany Festival, Lalibela, Ethiopia - ERIC LAFFORGUE / Alamy Stock Photo

The British Museum should exploit a legal loophole to decolonise its treasures, peers and actors have said, as bosses discuss the repatriation of sacred tablets.

Despite the museum being legally bound to retain objects for the UK public, campaigners have said that discretionary powers will allow the return of artefacts acquired during the height of the British Empire.

Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett, and a coalition of peers have demanded British Museum director Hartwig Fischer exploit these powers to repatriate Ethiopian sacred tablets by branding them officially “unfit” for its collection.

Mr Fischer has met with a delegation from Ethiopia to discuss the loophole and the return of the 11 “tabots”, held by the country’s Orthodox church to be dwelling places of the holy, most of which were seized by British imperial forces in the 19th century.

A letter to the British Museum trustees, signed by Fry and Everett and seen by the Telegraph, states: “We believe that today the British Museum has a unique opportunity to build a lasting and meaningful bridge of friendship between Britain and Ethiopia by handing the tabots back to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.”

Hartwig Fischer - Getty Images Europe
Hartwig Fischer - Getty Images Europe

Legislation dictates that objects in national collections must be retained for the public and not arbitrarily given away, with under-fire museum leaders handling calls for repatriation often claiming Parliament must change the law in order for artefacts to be returned.

But barristers have argued that the British Museum Act of 1963 would allow the British Museum's hierarchy to dispose of objects deemed useless to the institution.

The tabots are deemed by believers to be so holy they cannot be handled or viewed except by a priest, yet campaigners have now called for Mr Fischer to brand them as “unfit” for British Museum, thereby allowing them to be removed from its collection and repatriated.

The British Museum has not commented on the potential use of such a loophole, which has been backed by seven peers including former deputy chief whip Baron Foster of Bath, along with former British Ambassador to Ethiopia Sir Harold Walker.

While the use of such a loophole may not be limited to the Ethiopian tabots, which have been at the centre of recent calls to decolonise collections, campaigners have said that they are not making a “general call for cultural repatriation”.

The 11 tablets at the British Museum are hidden from public view and from curators due to their sacred significance for the Ethiopian church, and as they have never displayed or studied the objects which are kept in storage, campaigners believe they could easily be deemed officially “unfit” for the institution.

A letter pleading directly with trustees states: “By returning the tabots to the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, you .. have a clear opportunity to show sensitivity as regards these very sacred objects.”

It adds that they are: “Entirely unique in the Museum’s collection given their accepted religious significance and the fact that they can never be exhibited.”

Tabots' provenance

Nine of the tablets were seized along with other treasures in 1868 when British forces raided the Abyssinian (modern-day Ethiopian) mountain fortress of Magdala.

Items known as the “Magdala Treasures” have been at the centre of renewed calls for repatriation following Black Lives Matter protests, with 80 such objects held by the British Museum.

Such is the significance of the tabots in particular to the Ethiopian Orthdos church, that a national holiday was declared in 2002 when the Scottish Episcopalian Church returned a single tablet that was in its possession.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, welcomed an Ethiopian delegation to the Museum on Thursday.

"They enjoyed a tour of the collection and held cordial discussions on future possibilities for collaboration in the area of museums and on the tabots in the Museum’s collection,' a spokeswoman said.

"The Museum has long-standing and friendly relations with the National Museum in Addis Ababa and with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in London and in Ethiopia. Following today’s meeting, the British Museum will continue these discussions with the relevant parties."

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