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The British Museum, its Ethiopian Tabots, and Mr Derek Wyatt MP
By Richard Pankhurst in the Addis Tribune 01 August 03
Mr Derek Wyatt MP, a strong supporter of AFROMET, the Association for the Return of Ethiopian Maqdala Treasures, chose the occasion of the committee hearing to ask the Minister of Culture, "how you feel about the Ethiopian Maqdala treasures which Napier looted in 1868 and sold for £5,000 in Ethiopia, which are held here in the Queen's collection at the V&A and the British Museum, and over the last hundred years we have given scraps back".
After which Wyatt continued:
"We gave a second-rate crown back but kept the gold crown here at the V&A. I visited Addis Ababa last year under my own volition and there is real deep resentment of how we have taken their religious treasures".
Referring specifically to the Museum's cache of Ethiopian Tabots, or ecclesiastical representations of the Ark of the Covenant (which cannot be displayed because they are traditionally visible only to Ethiopian clerics), Wyatt went on:
"Lock and Key"
"They are kept under lock and key at the British Museum and no-one can see them. Is there some reason why they cannot go back?"
The next speaker, Dr Gaimster, sought to avoid the issue by declaring:
"I think it is important to try to distinguish between spoliation, which was recognised as a real and serious issue by the select committee during its deliberations in 2000 - artefacts and works of art that had been wrongfully take during the Nazi era - and other issues of restitution in the museum community and the example you quoted about Ethiopian treasures taken in the 19th Century. The restitution issue is another very large issue and one which was also addressed by the select committee to an extent, and is one that does concern the museum community. There are continuous debates on the issue. There any many more famous cases, perhaps, than the Ethiopian one you have just mentioned, and ones which concern government as well. In terms of looking at the question and longer term policy - how do you deal with claims, cultural claims particularly from cultures which still exist that have a claim on objects which may have been removed from these cultures previously, particularly in a colonial context - what I am saying is that those issues are very important to us too, and we are looking at them in terms of how we develop policy with colleagues in the museum community. We are looking at drafting new guidelines, new guidance, how museums acquire such objects today - and we can come on to that later perhaps because you might be interested in that area. We have so far tried to keep a distance between historical situations such as the Ethiopian cases you have mentioned and current acquisition issues, and also careful not to conflict, say, spoliation with those historical restitution cases. I am not saying they are not important, but I think what we are trying to do is work with colleagues in the museum community and with the National Board of Museum Directors to look at the question and look at future policy. That is not to say we do not take those questions very, very seriously".
Derek Wyatt returns
Derek Wyatt, who was far from satisfied by the above remarks, then returned to the Maqdala loot, and observed:
"You will not be surprised that I find that a deeply unhelpful answer. We have taken the most religious parts of the [Ethiopian] church - the oldest Christian church in the world we looted in 1868 - and they are in a drawer and cannot be put on public display. The Archbishop and President of Ethiopia would like them back. It is not unreasonable, is it, for us to send them back? The Italians are negotiating sending an obelisk. Edinburgh has sent one of the tablets back. Why are we so sniffy? These are part of their [i.e. Ethiopian] whole religious history and we hold them in a drawer which no-one can see!"
The Committee Chairman, Mr Gerald Kaufman, then spoke up to say:
"Could I just intervene to say, not in any way contesting anything you have said but they cannot be sent back, the law does not allow them to be sent back…You will be aware that this is the point of issue also in relation to the Parthenon Marbles. I think, in principle, that this is an area of profound importance. It is an issue that will face us again in the autumn when the working group on human remains reports. The issue is this: to what extent should the collections which are currently in our museums be subject to review where a case for restitution is made, whether a claim is made, regardless of whether a claim has been made? In relation to museum policy generally I think this will be one of the most important issues of the next five years. It is a very hot and controversial debate within the museum community, as I am sure you know. At the moment, any progress along the lines you proposed is Locked by the legislative responsibility of the trustees of the British Museum".
Mr Wyatt was not to be fobbed off by the above argument.
Not fobbed off
Emphasisisg that the British Museum regulations can be changed, he declared:
"Indeed, but a Private Member's Bill, as we have already seen with Richard Allan, could unlock some of that. Would I be right in thinking that the academics at the British Museum are nervous because, if they allow one collection to go, they then open themselves up? Is this not the burning issue with collections worldwide over the next ten or 20 years? Ethiopia happens to be the oldest civilisation in Africa and I understand that people would like to have these things back. It is not unreasonable, is it?"
The next speaker was the Secretary of State, the Right Hon. Tessa Jowell. She intervened to say:
"The view you have described and the strength of feeling you have described is not unfair at all; but I think we have all got to be aware of the consequence that follows if we say, "Okay, where artefacts and treasures were acquired by whatever means, in some cases hundreds and hundreds of years ago, where there is a wish that they be returned they are returned", then the impact on our collections and the impact on the role of a museum like the British Museum, which sees itself very much as a museum for the world, will be enormous. One of the reasons I find this particular issue so difficult is that I am not clear about the extent one can reston principle without finding in effect that most of our museums are denuded of many of their most important treasures and, therefore, denied to millions and millions of people who come to this country in order to see them".
Derek Wyatt then replied:
"I understand that debate. Has there been an analysis by the British Museum as to how much looted treasure there is?"
The debate then continued:
"You may wish to request that information from the director of the British Museum if he has already given evidence to you in the context of this inquiry".
A later speaker, Michael Fabricant, came back to Derek Wyatt's arguments, and declared: "I think your answer to my colleague, Derek Wyatt, was absolutely right on the question of the return of cultural objects. It is not only a question of the law and whether or not it is spoliation or not; but it is also a question of the care that is taken of these objects. These objects are really held in stewardship for the history of humanity. If they were returned to places where they were not then looked after, because the humidity would not be right, maybe they would not be cared for in the right way, or maybe (as in Iraq) they may get damaged, I do not think future generations would thank the British Governing in forcing the British Museum to return them".
"I am not signalling in what I hope are my reflective answers to you any intention by the government to change policy. Categorically, there is no intention to legislate in this area. However, I think it will be very important that the government is open to what I expect to be a very significant debate over the next five or ten years about the relationship between major international museums, the collections they have and the countries which in many cases, hundreds or thousands of years ago, those collections were derived from".
"Is not that just a green light for many of these countries to come and knock on your door?"
"No. I really ask you to be more sophisticated than that. There is no headline that anyone can draw from what I have said that the government intends to enter into legislation that would open the doors of our museums and see collections walking out to countries around the world. That is not what I am saying. I hope that you accept that and that nobody will seek to misrepresent that. I am being absolutely clear that there are no plans. The government has no plans; I have no plans as the Secretary of State to amend the law. I am reflecting however that I expect that there will be a major debate which may take however long in this area. I think it will focus on a number of different aspects of the collection at the British Museum and museums in other parts of the world. That is the point I am making".
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