© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On April 13, it was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Maqdala between the British empire and the Abyssinian empire, in modern day Ethiopia. The battle of 1868, which basically started as an expedition to free British hostages taken by the Abyssinian emperor, resulted in a decisive victory for the British and the suicide of the Abyssinian emperor Tewodros. In the aftermath, the British troops plundered the empire and loaded 15 elephants and almost 200 mules with their spoils. They took the treasure - along with the seven year old son of the emperor - back to London. The treasure ended up in several British museums and the National Library. The young Abyssinian prince died several years later, only eighteen years old.

The Victoria and Albert Museum now hosts a special display called Maqdala 1868, with a number of the artifacts, looted by British forces in that campaign. The most prominent of which is a magnificent golden crown, adorned with images of the Apostles.

The exposition also raises the issue of the restitution of the looted artifacts to Ethiopia. Last week the Art Newspaper published an interview with Victoria and Albert Museum Director Tristam Hunt. In the case of the Maqdala treasures, the Ethiopian government already lodged a formal restitution claim several years ago. The Victoria and Albert Museum wouldn’t go so far as to propose a full return of the property to Ethiopia, but instead suggested a long term loan, as a less complex middle way. This suggestion was welcomed as a great improvement by the co-founder of Afromet, a campaign group that tries to return the Maqdala treasures to Ethiopia. The proposed loan, on the other hand, was also met with skepticism.

The remarks made by the Victoria and Albert Museum, are the most recent addition to the ongoing debate on the (legal) status of cultural property taken by Western colonial powers, from African and Asian countries. Last November, French president Emmanuel Macron expressed the importance of restituting objects of African heritage, to their African countries of origin. African heritage should also be exhibited in African cities, not only in European capitals, so that the people of Africa won’t have to come to Europe to see their heritage.

The main international conventions dealing with the restitution of illegally obtained cultural property – such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 UNDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects are not applicable to the looted items from Africa in the colonial age. The aforementioned Conventions, don’t work retroactively. But that doesn’t mean that since 1868 the views regarding wartime loot have not changed significantly.

The once admired spoils of a successful war, are now under the review of international cultural heritage laws and a growing public awareness that these artifacts should be admired by the people whose ancestors they belonged to. The question that remains is which legal instruments should be applied to facilitate these gradual changing views and norms. A ‘long-term loan’ might just do that, but it is doubtful whether a long-term loan is the most fair solution to the question of Maqdala’s treasures.

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