British Museum faces probe over handling of tabots, sacred Ethiopian artifacts held 150 years out of view

London – London’s famous British Museum is under investigation by the UK’s information watchdog following allegations it failed to be transparent about a collection of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets kept hidden from public view for over 150 years. The museum has housed the 11 wooden and stone tabots – replicas of the Ark of the Covenant – since they were looted from Ethiopia by British forces after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868.

According to the museum, the tabots “are considered by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on Earth, the mercy seat described in the Bible and the representation of the Ark of the Covenant.” The ancient Ark of the Covenant, according to Jewish tradition, contained the 10 commandments.

If consecrated, a tabot is usually kept in a church’s Holy of Holies, an inner sanctuary that only senior clerics are permitted to enter. Due to their sacred nature, the tabots have never been put on public display by the British Museum.

Daily life in Ethiopia
Priests lead a procession of the “Tabot”, carrying replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, during the annual feast of Saint Gabriel the Archangel on December 28, 2020, at the Gibi Gabriel Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

J. Countess/Getty

Returning Heritage, an advocacy group which focuses on the return of artefacts obtained during Britain’s long reign as an imperial power, has filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), arguing that The museum withheld important details about internal deliberations over the status of the tabots when responding to a Freedom of Information request.

“The Museum’s lack of transparency on this issue is deeply concerning,” Lewis McNaught, editor of Returning Heritage, said in a statement. “Following the recent announcement that Westminster Abbey has agreed ‘in principle’ to return the Ethiopian Tabot sealed on the back of its Lady Chapel altar, we hope the ICO will agree that it is time that the museum explains why it still clings to a collection of highly valuable sacred objects which, unlike other contested objects in its collection, can be returned without changing current legislation.

Under British law, the British Museum is prohibited from returning any of its treasures to its country of origin, except in very specific circumstances. A clause in the British Museum Act 1963 allows for the repatriation of objects if, in the opinion of museum trustees, the objects are “unfit for retention” and can be removed “without prejudice to the interests of students”.

“The information sought concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest,” said Tom Short, an attorney with the firm that filed the complaint on behalf of Returning Heritage. “That the museum would attempt to shield this information from public scrutiny is surprising, particularly at a time when recent events have made clear the need to shed light on how the museum conducts its business.”

The British Museum declined to comment on the investigation. On its website, the museum indicates that it is actively participating in discussions with Ethiopian partners regarding the collection.

The museum has been no stranger to controversy over the past year. Last month he appointed a new director after his former boss resigned following the discovery that 1,800 objects in the museum’s collection were “missing, stolen or damaged“.

British Museum security questioned after revelations of missing treasures
Visitors to the British Museum in London, England, walk around a selection of objects from the collection of ancient Greek sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles, August 23, 2023.


Another of the museum’s award-winning collections sits at the center of a separate section artifact feud between the United Kingdom and Greece. Greek authorities have demanded the return of the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which have been part of the British Museum’s permanent collection for decades.


Back to top button