British museum agrees to return Emperor Tewodros’ hair to Ethiopia

By Elias Meseret | AP March 4 at 7:06 AM

ADDIS
ABABA, Ethiopia — Two locks of hair belonging to widely revered
Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros will be repatriated after a request from
Addis Ababa, the National Army Museum in Britain announced Monday, as
more African countries seek to reclaim heritage they say was taken
decades, even centuries, ago.

An outcry erupted
last year in Ethiopia over an exhibit by the Victoria and Albert Museum
on the 1868 British expedition to what was then called Abyssinia. During
that campaign, in which 13,000 troops were deployed to free several
British hostages, the emperor killed himself and his fortress was
captured and looted.

“Even at the time, this
episode was regarded as a shameful one,” the Victoria and Albert Museum
said in its notes on the exhibit.

Ethiopians were appalled, with the government saying it would use “whatever legal and diplomatic instruments” to secure the return of related items including an intricate golden crown.

That locks of the emperor’s hair were being held by
another British museum was seen as particularly sensitive. “Displaying
human parts in websites and museums is inhumane,” Ethiopia’s minister
for culture and tourism, Hirut Woldemariam, told The Associated Press
last year.

The National Army Museum has said the
hair was donated in 1959 by relatives of an artist who painted the
emperor on his deathbed.

“Our decision to
repatriate is very much based on the desire to inter the hair within the
tomb alongside the emperor” at a monastery in northern Ethiopia, Terri
Dendy, the museum’s head of collections standards and care, said in a
statement.

It was not clear when the formal handover would occur. The Ethiopian Embassy in London said it would hold talks with the museum on Thursday about the repatriation, which comes at the end of a yearlong commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the confrontation known as the Battle of Maqdala.

The embassy in a statement commended the museum’s
decision as an “exemplary gesture of goodwill,” adding that “a display
of jubilant euphoria is to be expected when (the hair) is returned to
its rightful home.”

Now Ethiopians say they seek
the return of the bones of the emperor’s son, Prince Alemayehu, who was
taken to Britain and died there at age 18. He was buried at St.
George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

The decision
to return the emperor’s hair is “a great start, both in encouraging the
British toward looking into the possibilities of returning our looted
antiquities and also the Ethiopian stakeholders whose decades-long,
painstaking efforts actually can bear fruit,” Yonas Desta,
director-general of Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation
of Cultural Heritage, told the AP.

The bulk of
what was taken, however, remains in the hands of the descendants of the
British soldiers, according to Alula Pankhurst, a former professor at
Addis Ababa University and an expert on Ethiopian studies. ADVERTISING

“Some
items in private collections have already been returned but the bulk of
the items are in public collections within the UK and those cannot be
restituted without an act of Parliament, and that is something that
requires a big change in popular opinion and a bill has to be presented
by members of Parliament,” he said last year. “This is something that
cannot be done overnight.”

Some in Africa expect the momentum to grow in repatriating heritage from institutions overseas.

Late
last year, a study by French art historian Benedicte Savoy and
Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, commissioned by French President
Emmanuel Macron, recommended that French museums give back works that
were taken without consent, if African countries request them.

That
could increase pressure on museums elsewhere in Europe to follow suit.
The experts estimated that up to 90 percent of African art is outside
the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts.

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