Have you been following on the story of the Ethiopian treasures from Maqdala being sent to Ethiopia “on long-term loan”? It is one of those stories that I cannot believe we are debating in 2018, one would think we have evolved and things are now different. Yet, one would be surprised.
So, let me provide you a quick update. It all started when The Guardian newspaper published a story interviewing the Victoria and Albert Museum director announcing, as the museum was preparing to open a Maqdala display, “the speediest way, if Ethiopia wanted to have these items on display, is a long-term loan… that would be the easiest way to manage it”.
The Maqdala display is a collection of 20 items that British troops pillaged during the capture of Maqdala 150 years ago, in 1868. In 2007, the Ethiopian government requested the return of a list of items that were plundered after the capture of Maqdala. The answer to this request was: no. The director of the V&A stated that it is difficult to have a blanket policy when it comes to return looted artifacts and that the debate was complex. And all I could think was, is it really that complex? Is it complex when a famous painting disappears from Europe and turns up in an Asian country and that country claims “ownership” over that painting?
The one thing I will agree with is that there is a lot of politics behind it. I remember walking into the British Museum’s Egypt collection and wondering how many more artifacts were left in Egypt. Were they all in London? Does Egypt know? Obviously these were rhetoric questions, but it is the truth. European museums are filled with arts and artifacts of non-European countries. I would understand if where the artifacts came from was unclear, but when you can clearly date and indicate where they are from, and the country is asking for their artifacts back… Where does the complication lie? Ethiopia is not the first, nor will it be last country to ask for restitution. Greece, numerous Asian countries and other African countries are pushing for the return of their heritage.
When this story broke out, it was reported that the Ethiopian State welcomed this offer of a “long-term loan”, but then, the story shifted. Pictures of the Ethiopian community as well as embassy representatives in London attended the opening of the display at the V&A. But then, it seemed that the position of the Ethiopian government was not exactly enthusiastic of the “long-term loan” idea, as The Guardian had reported. In fact, news started emerging about the Ethiopian government clearly stating that it will not accept these items on loan. The government, and the people of Ethiopia, are asking for the restitution of these items, an others looted and currently in the UK. A position many, on the looted end, would agree with.
In my view, the artifacts from Maqdala, and any looted historical items are in fact on “long-term loan”. But the loan is by the countries that looted those artifacts and kept them in their museums or homes. They do not have the agency to pass them along or “loan” them to anyone. Think about it, you can’t loan to others what you do not own, correct?