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Scrutiny of BM’s Maqdala collns ongoing
The tabots have never been on public display and are considered to be so sacred that even the museum’s own curators and trustees are forbidden from examining them. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA.

Watchdog examining claims key details have not been disclosed about altar tablets that museum is facing calls to return

The information watchdog is investigating the British Museum over claims it has been overly secretive about some of the most sensitive items in its collection – a group of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets that have been hidden from view at the museum for more than 150 years.

The 11 wood and stone tabots, which the museum acknowledges were looted by British soldiers after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, have never been on public display and are considered to be so sacred that even the institution’s own curators and trustees are forbidden from examining them.

There have long been calls for them to be returned to Ethiopia. In 2019 the country’s culture minister, on a visit to the museum, requested their return.

Campaigners have now submitted a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) arguing that the museum has failed to disclose key details of internal discussions about the tabots in response to a freedom of information request.

Returning Heritage, a not-for-profit organisation that collates information on cultural restitution, submitted the FoI request in August 2023 and says the museum’s reply omitted relevant material, while other information was overly redacted. An internal museum review carried out at Returning Heritage’s request upheld its initial response.

The organisation argues that while the British Museum Act 1963, which bars the disposal of objects except in very limited circumstances, means the status of other disputed artefacts is ambiguous, the tabots could lawfully be returned now.

Ethiopian Orthodox priests in religious costumes carrying holds tabots above their heads
Ethiopian Orthodox priests carrying tabots during Timkat celebrations Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph: Andy Chadwick/Alamy.

“The act is very explicit that the museum [can’t] return objects,” said Lewis McNaught, Returning Heritage’s managing editor. “But there are some legal exemptions within the act. And one of those exemptions allows the trustees to return certain items if they consider them ‘unfit to be retained’.”

Because the tabots will never be exhibited or studied – they are thought to be held in a sealed room that can only be entered by Ethiopian clergy – they fit this category, the organisation believes.

Returning Heritage requested information from meetings where trustees discussed the tabots, which it believes could provide insights into why they believe they cannot lawfully be returned. “It seems very strange that the museum would not wish to explain why they’re holding on to objects that they can return,” said McNaught, arguing there was “a genuine public interest – with this unique group of objects that can be returned – [in understanding] why the museum will not explain why they’re not returning them”.

Westminster Abbey said last month it had agreed “in principle” that a single tabot that has been sealed inside a cathedral altar should be returned to Ethiopia. Another was returned soon after it was discovered in a church cupboard in Edinburgh 23 years ago, leading to ecstatic celebrations in its home country.

Tom Short, of the law firm Leigh Day, who submitted the ICO complaint on Returning Heritage’s behalf, said it believed the museum wrongly relied on certain permitted exemptions to FoI as justification for withholding material. Leigh Day has previously drawn up a legal opinion that it says shows the items can be legally returned.

“Our client seeks information from the museum that many would argue should be in the public domain by default,” Short said. “[It] concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest.”

The British Museum declined to comment. It has previously said its long-term ambition is to lend the tabots to an Ethiopian Orthodox church in the UK, though clerics have questioned the feasibility of this due to the insurance costs.

The ICO confirmed it had received the complaint.


See also: British Museum Under Investigation Over Looted Ethiopian Artifacts