Ethiopia lodged a formal restitution claim in 2007 for hundreds of important and beautiful manuscripts and artefacts being held by various British institutions, all plundered after the 1868 capture of Maqdala, the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then Abyssinia.
That request has been refused. But in the run-up to a Maqdala display opening this week at the V&A, a compromise has been offered by the museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, who said: “The speediest way, if Ethiopia wanted to have these items on display, is a long-term loan … that would be the easiest way to manage it.”
The offer is significant given the pledge by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that the return of African artefacts would be a “top priority” for his administration.
The loan proposal has been welcomed by the Ethiopian state and campaigners, but Hunt said it was a complex debate and it was important not to extrapolate a “blanket policy”.
He told the Guardian: “You have to take it item by item and you have to take it history by history. Once you unpick the histories of the collections it becomes a great deal more complicated and challenging.”
The Maqdala display, which opens on Thursday, will show 20 items taken after a military expedition to secure the release of British hostages taken by Tewodros. The British victory culminated in the emperor’s suicide and the destruction of his fortress.
Hundreds of artefacts were plundered from Maqdala and the emperor’s treasury cleared with 15 elephants and 200 mules needed to transport them. Campaigners have identified about a dozen UK institutions that own them, from the V&A in London to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle to a regimental museum in Halifax.
Hunt said there were a number of reasons why a simple return was not possible, including the legal difficulties around deaccessioning and the “philosophical case for cosmopolitanism in museum collections”.
The offer of a long-term loan was welcomed by Prof Andreas Eshete, a former president of Addis Ababa University who co-founded Afromet, a campaign group for the return of Maqdala treasures.
“This can only be a great improvement on what has happened before,” he said. “There are certain things that are important to Ethiopia that are never on display in the UK so I think a loan, on a long-term basis, would be a great gift to the country.”
Eshete hoped by taking this first step it might also educate the British public about the merit of returning objects: “Once they see they are used in a proper way and in a way that is accessible to not only the Ethiopian public but the international public … people may well change their mind about the value of holding on to them for ever.”
The museum has worked closely with the Ethiopian embassy before the anniversary display. The ambassador, Hailemichael Aberra Afework, said: “We are delighted with the new partnership between Ethiopia and the V&A and look forward to working together in the future to our mutual benefit.
“Future cooperation will be especially beneficial in terms of capacity building and skills transfer in the care and maintenance of cultural heritage, in which the V&A has extensive experience.”
The loan may put pressure on other institutions to follow suit. The British Museum has about 80 objects from Maqdala, including a number of tabots – believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on earth, a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant.
They have never been on public display because of their religious importance and can only be seen, even by a curator, with the agreement of the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
Other objects are on display but the British Museum argues the value of them being seen by the public is in a global context. A spokeswoman said the museum would consider any loan request from Ethiopia.
Museums have international long-term loans in place but many believe they should go further, with the debate given impetus in November when Macron said in a speech: “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”
Hunt said politicians often had “geopolitical, if not trade and defence deals in mind” when they made such statements. “You have to approach it in an item by item manner.
“I think personally It would not be a bad idea to think about how we use development aid money for greater partnerships for conservation, heritage management and artefact support in countries, like Ethiopia, which have an incredible heritage and the prospect of a growing, global market of visitors.”