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British Museum must return Ethiopian Tabots, former curator insists

Sacred plaques can never be seen or touched by anyone other than an orthodox priest, says Lewis McNaught
The British Museum is facing calls from one of its own former curators to return sacred tablets to Ethiopia.
It is sacrilege for anyone other than a priest to even touch the 11 Ethiopian Tabots, small plaques which are considered so holy that they can never be exhibited, photographed or studied.
The museum has previously faced calls to repatriate the tablets, which are kept out of sight from the public in a sealed room.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Lewis McNaught, who worked for five years in the museum’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities, said they should be returned because neither the public nor scholars can see them.
“Nobody will ever miss them as nobody is ever allowed to see them,” he said. “Following an undertaking given by the British Museum, nobody but priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church ever will.”
It has been argued that the British Museum Act of 1963 prevents treasures housed in museums from being given away unless in specific circumstances, such as when they are “unfit to be retained”.
The Tabots are among artefacts seized by the British in the 1868 Battle of Magdala. The Magdala Treasures have been at the centre of an ongoing repatriation row.
Mr McNaught added: “Why have we not handed back these sacred items? The British Museum Act restricts their ability to hand back almost every item in the collection, but not the Tabots.
“The Tabots can be released now without a change in the Act, simply by the trustees recognising they are unfit to be retained. Why isn’t the museum doing the decent thing and handling back these objects?”
Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law, echoed this sentiment, saying: “How is that fit for a collection? A good test for that is whether any museum today would ever go out and acquire material of that nature. The answer is obviously no.
“So, in a sense, that can be a good rule of thumb for determining whether an item is fit or unfit for the collection.”
He added that the Tabots may be one of the few cases that would meet criteria for an exception.
“The trustees would be able to dispose of items from the collection if they’re considered unfit and if their return would not be a detriment to students,” he said. “But it still remains a matter for the trustees.”
‘It’s not their culture’
An Ethiopian priest in London, who declined to be named, echoed calls for the museum to return the Tabot collection: “It’s not theirs. They took it from a church… it’s not their culture. They have violated that because it’s been touched by a lot of people.”
The comments come after it emerged that up to 2,000 items have been stolen from the British Museum’s storerooms in what is believed to be the largest theft in its history.
Hartwig Fischer, the museum director, resigned as a result of the scandal, and Jonathan Williams, his deputy, is standing down while a police investigation is underway.
In a new post for Returning Heritage, an online resource debating cultural restitution, Mr McNaught highlighted the “damage to the British Museum’s reputation as a secure custodian of global treasures”.
A British Museum spokesman said that the Tabots are housed in a special location, maintained in consultation with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and made available to Ethiopian Orthodox priests and prelates, with a “long-term ambition” to lend them to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the UK.
A statement said: “The British Museum’s collection tells the story of human cultural achievement over 2 million years. The presence of the Tabots in the collection, together with other objects from Ethiopia, demonstrate the breadth and diversity of religious traditions in Ethiopia, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism as well as other faiths.”



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