British Museum Investigated Over Concealment of Ethiopian Artefacts

British Museum Investigated Over Concealment of Ethiopian Artefacts

The British Museum is facing scrutiny from the information watchdog over its handling of a collection of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets, which have been concealed from public view for over a century and a half. These artifacts, totaling 11 in number, were seized by British soldiers following the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. Despite acknowledging their origins, the museum has kept them hidden, citing their sacred nature as the reason for not allowing even its own staff to examine them.

Calls for the return of these tablets to Ethiopia have persisted for years, with the country's culture minister formally requesting their repatriation during a visit to the museum in 2019. Now, Returning Heritage, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural restitution, has filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), alleging that the British Museum has been less than forthcoming in its response to a freedom of information request regarding internal discussions about the tablets.

According to Returning Heritage, the museum's reply to their request in August 2023 omitted crucial details and excessively redacted other information. Despite an internal review, the museum upheld its initial response, prompting further action from Returning Heritage. They argue that while the British Museum Act 1963 generally prohibits the disposal of objects, there are exceptions that would allow for the return of these specific artifacts.

Lewis McNaught, Managing Editor of Returning Heritage, points out that the Act permits trustees to consider returning items deemed "unfit to be retained." Given that the tablets are unlikely to ever be exhibited or studied – believed to be stored in a sealed room accessible only to Ethiopian clergy – they could fall under this category. The organization believes that insights into the museum's reasoning for not returning the tablets could be gleaned from records of trustee meetings, thus justifying their request for information.

Westminster Abbey recently announced its agreement, in principle, to return one of the tablets that has been sealed inside a cathedral altar to Ethiopia. This decision follows the return of another tablet, which was discovered in a church cupboard in Edinburgh 23 years ago, sparking celebrations in Ethiopia.

Tom Short of the law firm Leigh Day, representing Returning Heritage, asserts that the museum's reliance on certain exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act is unjustified. Leigh Day has previously provided a legal opinion supporting the argument that the tablets can be lawfully returned.

The British Museum, however, has remained tight-lipped on the matter, declining to comment on the ongoing investigation. In the past, the museum has expressed its intention to eventually lend the tablets to a UK-based Ethiopian Orthodox church. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised about the feasibility of such a move, particularly regarding the cost of insuring such priceless artifacts.

The ICO has confirmed receipt of the complaint, signaling that the investigation into the British Museum's handling of this sensitive issue is underway. As the debate over the restitution of cultural artifacts continues to unfold, the outcome of this investigation may have far-reaching implications for museums and cultural institutions worldwide.

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