The Silver Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum are less frequented than most. Recently the foot traffic has increased as the silverware piled high in this cavernous space is augmented by the treasure of Maqdala.
The V&A is entirely open about the questionable origins of these Ethiopian wares. Although the lighting is not the best the museum has to offer, the exhibition illuminates a grim chapter in history: the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, in which the British routed the Abyssinians and made off with a vast amount of loot.
The mini exhibition makes a statement out of all proportion to its allocated space. A title panel announces: “Maqdala 1868”. The decorative use of the Ge’ez alphabet adds to the mystery, while the English text provides an overview of the ownership issues surrounding the crosses, manuscripts and other mainly religious paraphernalia on display.
Meanwhile, there is a diplomatic standoff between Ethiopia and Britain over whether the Maqdala booty should be returned.
Most of the media and visitor interest has been focused on an imperial crown. It’s big and shiny and gold; a less impressive silver-gilt version was given back to the ruler of Ethiopia in 1924. The crown is not the most spiritual-looking part of the haul, but it and a golden chalice have apparently been on display since 1872. The less conspicuous items are now out in the open too.
The V&A is trying harder than many other institutions to examine the past. The British Museum’s recent exhibition Living with gods had some similar items that came with better descriptions of usage than of provenance. The V&A’s concerned approach has spread as far as Exeter, where the newly reopened Royal Albert Memorial Museum modified its description of a Kongo drum to say that it was “perhaps unethically acquired from an African shrine”.
Sometimes the religious significance has been lost in the rush to get the heritage angle right. It was British Christians and the Times newspaper that prevented some choice items being returned to Ethiopia in 1912. The sympathetic Lady Meux had asked in her will that important manuscripts be sent back to the emperor, but her wishes were thwarted after her death.
As a sign of more recent times, a parliamentary committee in 2000 talked not just of heritage restitution but also used the word “sacrilege” to describe the pillaging of a church in Maqdala. Tristram Hunt, the historian and former Labour MP who is
now director of the V&A, is taking the issue further than ever before. But there is still the question of where to return the goods to. Should it be the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa, or the descendants of the imperial family? It certainly won’t be Maqdala: the British left that a smoking ruin after what one proud observer called a “careful nursing” of the flames.
With reconciliation comes knowledge and perhaps a wider audience. An untapped visitor demographic is the Rastafarian community of potential pilgrims seeking out relics of their messiah’s immediate forebears. Emperor Haile Selassie, the central figure in Rastafari ideology, has more followers in London than in Ethiopia.