London’s Victoria & Albert Museum could soon return treasures to Ethiopia 150 years after they were snatched from the east African country.
Items including a gold crown and a royal wedding dress were plundered by the British at the end of their expedition to the country – then Abyssinia – in 1868.
Ethiopians have campaigned for the artefacts’ return since they were seized from the fortress of Maqdala.
Other Maqdala items are found in the British Museum, British Library, The Royal Library and the Bodleian Library.
Tim Reeve, deputy director of the V&A, told the Cheltenham Literature Festival that a conversation about returning the treasures was “very live, very animated, very constructive and very timely”.
“That’s not just the case of the V&A, I think that’s around the museum world and rightly so,” he said.
“There is no dispute about whether or not they were borrowed, they were looted and that’s a story we have tried to tell very openly and very honestly at the V&A.
“We are in very close discussions with the Ethiopian Embassy about those artefacts and how they might in due course find their way back to Ethiopia.”
Mr Reeve said the discussions centred on how the treasures could be returned because the V&A and other national museums were forbidden in UK law to return items in perpetuity.
“A long loan of those objects as a sort of an initial step is the kind of thing we want to discuss if the right kind of conditions are there and they are in agreement with the Ethiopian Embassy,” he said.
“The next step is exactly as we’re doing with Maqdala which is to try and work out a way forward, a long-term solution for those objects.”
Mr Reeve said the move was part of the V&A’s work to “decolonise” its collections.
“Provenance is a big area for museums to invest in researching where these objects come from and how they came to be in these national collections,” he said.
“Being able to tell a much more rounded, holistic, accurate and honest story about those objects.”
Mr Reeve also discussed the future funding of the arts sector, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, describing the current situation as “cataclysmic”.
“If you set up a model for national museums that requires them and incentivises them in good times to generate such a high proportion of their own income from visitors you have to in my view prepare for the bad times,” he said.
“I think if we’re going to carry on down that route, I think the Government should be thinking about having in place some sorts of contingency for a very small number where that model is going to come under strain.
“It doesn’t seem to me as a sensible approach to have to slam the anchors on in the way that all of these big museums have had to over the last six months and more or less start to build up from scratch.
“There needs to be something that is there by way of a safety net so that everyone’s not rolling back decades and decades of hard work and investment and creativity.”
He also described reintroducing entrance fees for national museums as a “false economy”.