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British Museum religious treasures could be legally restored to Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Ethiopian treasures stored in British Museum vaults could be legally restored to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, UK public law experts believe.

Posted on 11 October 2021

The 11 objects with exceptional spiritual and religious value for the people of Ethiopia could be returned to their country of origin under Section 5 of the British Museum Act 1963, it has been advised.

The provisions of the Act allow for the return of museum objects deemed unfit to be retained, “no longer useful or relevant to the museum’s purpose” and “without detriment to students”.

The legal opinion written by Samantha Knights QC of Matrix Chambers commissioned by Leigh Day public law department was provided to The Scheherazade Foundation, a non-profit organisation which works “to bridge cultures, empower women and unlock the potential of stories”.

The Foundation is seeking the return of 11 “Tabots”, nine of which were looted by British imperial forces during their Abyssinian campaign in the aftermath of the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. The Tabots – altar tablets – are replicas of the stone tablets inscribed with the 10 Commandments, given to Moses after the Jewish exodus from Egypt in 1300 BC and believed to have been kept in the Ark of the Covenant until the exile to Babylon in 597 BC, when it disappeared. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church holds the replica tablets to be of such sacred importance that they are believed to personify the saint to whom they are dedicated. A church of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith which has been deprived of its Tabot cannot fully function as a place of worship.

In acknowledgement of the sanctity of the Tabots, the British Museum has never put them on public display, but kept them away from view in its vaults. Never allowed to be studied, copied or photographed, the Tabots have remained untouched for 150 years.

In such circumstances, legal opinion is that under the Museum Act of 1963, the British Museum trustees can deem the Tabots no longer relevant to the museum’s purpose and as such, unfit to be retained, which would open the way for them to be restored to their original owners, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Section 5 (1) (c) of the Act states: “The Trustees of the British Museum may sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if — in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students.”

The Museum Secretary has stated that unfit means: “in the Trustees' reasonable opinion, without merit or value” and can be disposed of “without detriment to the interests of students”, which the lawyers say is key. No student who wished to study the Tabots would be allowed to have access to them. No student anywhere in the world would suffer if the Tabots were disposed of by the Museum.

Lawyers say the Tabots have “no apparent use or relevance to the Museum” and have always been treated very differently to the rest of its collection, although they are housed safely, they are not curated, researched or exhibited.

The Museum’s policy on de-accession of any of the objects in its care is not considered a barrier to the return of the Tabots. In fact, in line with the Museum’s aims, de-accession would “appear to benefit humanity and enhance the Museum’s national and international role and reputation”.

Strengthened by the opinion, The Scheherazade Foundation directors, supported by several peers, former British Ambassadors to North Africa, and arts alumni including Rupert Everett, Steven Fry, Robert McCrum and Lemn Sissay, have written to the outgoing chair of the British Museum to make their case for the return of the Tabots.

They wrote: “There is a clear opportunity here to act in accordance with the British Museum Act, respect the deeply religious significance of the Tabots, whilst at the same time demonstrating the British Museum is alive to changing public perceptions. Not only would the resulting bonds of friendship between Britain and Ethiopia be unbreakable, but the international reputation of the British Museum would be greatly enhanced – purely by complying with its own rules and regulations.”

Museum Chair, Sir Richard Lambert’s role is due to be taken up by George Osborne and the Foundation will press their case once he is in post.

Leigh Day partner Tessa Gregory, who represents The Scheherazade Foundation said:

“It is quite clear that the Trustees of the British Museum have the power under the British Museum Act 1963 (the Act) to give the Tabots back to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Tabots have no particular use or purpose for the Museum as they cannot be viewed, displayed, photographed, copied or made available for research or educational purposes. In these unique circumstances the Trustees can within the provisions of the Act deem the Tabots unfit to be retained and, without causing any detriment to students, return them to Ethiopia where they are of such sacred importance.”

Tessa Gregory
Corporate accountability Human rights Judicial review Planning Wildlife

Tessa Gregory

Tessa is an experienced litigator who specialises in international and domestic human rights law cases