What’s the British obsession with keeping stolen pieces? Isabella Day explores...
When visiting an art museum in the UK, how can you tell which items were obtained illegally, and which were not? This is the question that plagues art institutions across the Western world. According to the Archaeological Institute of America, 85 – 90% of artefacts on the market do not have documented provenance, a startling figure. So how did all these objects happen to come into Western possession? There is a straightforward answer: colonisation.
This week an appeal to the British museum has been registered, asking for the return of sacred Ethiopian Tabots to their country of origin, reigniting the debate surrounding ‘repatriation’ within the art world. There is a long history of Britain invading countries that have fallen foul of strict adherence to British political doctrine. Ethiopia is no exception, being subjected to a punitive expedition by the British in 1868. This culminated in the Battle of Maqdala, where, as retribution, sacred buildings and artefacts were burnt and stolen. The Tabots have been ‘owned’ by the British Museum since then, kept hidden in storage for over 150 years. They have never been seen the public and are not even allowed to be seen by staff. No photo is used on the brief description on their website.
Whilst these Tabots have extremely important spiritual and cultural value to the country of Ethiopia, they have absolutely none to Britain. As long as they remain in storage, they provide no museological or academic worth to the institution. Unfortunately, this story is not unique, being a clear example of the ‘colonial grounding of holding onto these looted artefacts’ that constitutes the nature of Western art museums. There are countless objects in the British Museum alone that have had calls to be returned to their countries of origin. From the Benin Bronzes to the Elgin Marbles, the Maqdala treasures (V&A) and the Rosetta Stone, there is no shortage of dubiously obtained artefacts held in the UK.
The British Museum Act 1963
In any article written about the repatriation of art in the U.K., the Museum Act of 1963 is inevitably cited. This act essentially sets out into law that British museums cannot dispose (sell/donate/repatriate) any of its holdings. Through this law, Britain has ironically awarded itself permanent ownership over artefacts which were illegally and violently obtained in the first place. And so, with any petition sent to a museum asking them to repatriate an item, a board of Trustees is given the power to assess and reply to these requests. Of course, these museums only offer a selection of copy and paste statements each time: a promise to research the provenance of the item, ‘more time is required before this can be looked at by trustees’, the possibility of a discussion about a loan. Evidently this Act has become a useful way to stonewall any and all requests pertaining to repatriation.
Why is this the case though? And why was the Act created? The answer lies in Britain’s empire, or rather its lack of empire. By the 1960’s more and more British colonies were seeking liberty, indeed by 1967 more than 20 countries had gained their independence. Laws such as the Museum Act can be seen as a symptom of the fear of the breakdown of empire - a reactionary measure intended to protect the past conquests of colonisation and consolidate the dwindling political power of the UK. Ever since the empire began to crumble, successive British governments have struggled to retain and assert global influence. Therefore, in the face of this, art can be translated to power. By resolutely declaring that the UK is the only (and best) place to keep and own foreign artefacts, the government is attempting to establish British superiority over its former colonies.
The continuation of this policy to the current day demonstrates how even in the 21st century, the UK has been unable to fully discard its imperialist practices. The failure of successive governments to recognise the oppression that the Museum Act (and museums in general) places upon the UK’s former colonies presents their opposition to decolonisation. The former secretary of state for culture, Oliver Dowden MP, urged museums earlier this year to ‘defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down’. Such an ignorant comment fits aptly with the Conservative governments resistance to decolonising Britain, something which was made abundantly clear in 2020 with the refusal to make Britain’s colonial past a compulsory part of the school curriculum.
For as long as repatriation is needed, it seems inevitable that controversy and debate will exist in tandem. Petitions such as with the Ethiopian Tabot’s brings crucial public attention to an area which has historically been overlooked and underrepresented. What is certain: reform is needed. As the calls for decolonisation increase across the UK, there is hope that finally these artefacts will return to their rightful homes.
1 - ‘Tabot’ – Ge’ez word for a replica of the Tablets of Law, on which the 10 commandments were written. Used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Tablets are usually made of wood or stone
2 - Process of returning an item to its place of origin
3 - Artist Victor Ehikhamenor on the topic of repatriation
4 - Part of the British Museums response to Ethiopian Tabot petition
Words by Isabella Day