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British Museum to be investigated by ICO over failure to disclose information regarding sacred Ethiopian Tabots

A complaint has been submitted to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over the British Museum’s response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request relating to 11 sacred Tabots held by the Museum.

There have long been calls for the Tabots to be returned to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, which would be permitted under the Museum’s existing governing Act.

Law firm Leigh Day submitted the complaint on behalf of Returning Heritage, a not-for-profit online resource providing information on cultural restitution, following a FOI request made on 30 August 2023.

Previously a legal opinion commissioned by Leigh Day’s client The Scheherazade Foundation found that the 11 Tabots held by the Museum could be lawfully repatriated to Ethiopia. This is on the grounds they are ‘unfit to be retained’ as they are deemed to be so sacred they are all permanently unavailable for exhibition or study by the public, the Museum’s staff and even by the Museum’s own trustees.

Returning Heritage’s FOI request invited the Museum to provide information from key meetings where trustees discussed the Tabots. This information could provide insight as to why trustees appear to believe they cannot lawfully deaccession the Tabots from the Museum’s collections.

The complaint made to the ICO maintains that some documentation relevant to this request has been withheld and other information unduly redacted. The Museum’s response was subject to an internal review on Returning Heritage’s request. However, the Museum upheld its original decision to hold back key information relying on various exemptions to disclosure, including that publication would prejudice the UK’s relations with another State.

Returning Heritage argues that the Museum has wrongly applied these exemptions, including by failing to give adequate weight to the significant public interest in the disclosure of this information.

On 22 February 2024, the ICO confirmed that the complaint is eligible for investigation and a caseworker has been assigned to investigate.

Lewis McNaught, managing editor of Returning Heritage, said:

“The Museum’s lack of transparency on this issue is deeply concerning. Following recent news that Westminster Abbey has agreed “in principle” to return the Ethiopian Tabot sealed into the back of its Lady Chapel altar, we hope the ICO will agree it’s time the Museum explains why it is still clinging on to a collection of highly sacred objects that, unlike other contested items in its collection, can be returned without a change in the existing legislation.”

Tom Short, a solicitor at Leigh Day, said:

“Our client seeks information from the Museum that many would argue should be in the public domain by default. The information sought concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest. That the Museum should attempt to withhold such information from public scrutiny is surprising and a matter of concern to our client, not least at a time when recent events have shown a clear need for light to be shone on how the Museum conducts its business.”

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Tom Short

Tom Short is a senior associate solicitor in the human rights department.

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Freedom of Information request submitted to British Museum for information on sacred Tabots

A Freedom of Information request has been submitted to the British Museum for information about 11 sacred Tabots, which many argue should be returned to their home in Ethiopia. 

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