Strands of heritage

Yosola Olorunshola, 22.03.2019

Repatriating locks of hair to Ethiopia raises questions about ‘belonging’

Public debates on restitution and repatriation often boil down to a simple question with complex consequences: “Who does this item belong to?”

I’m curious about this idea of ‘belonging,’ because the word entails more than identifying an item’s rightful owners. It also raises questions on what it means to belong to a community.

On 20 March, I visited the National Army Museum in London to attend a ceremony marking the return of items from the museum’s collection to the people of Ethiopia.

The items in question were locks of hair belonging to Emperor Tewodros II, a venerated 19th century leader who took his own life after being defeated by the British in the 1868 Battle of Maqdala during the Abyssinian Campaign.

The Storming of Magdala 1868, National army museum (2)

After Queen Victoria appeared to ignore his appeal for military support against the Ottoman Empire, Tewodros imprisoned several British missionaries and government representatives. This action triggered a strong military response from Britain, who sent a punitive expedition of 13,000 troops to Ethiopia and overpowered the “fragile” state. British troops ransacked the Emperor’s treasury – many of the plundered items still remain in UK museums today. The Emperor’s locks of hair form part of the conflict’s contested legacy.

At the repatriation ceremony, traditional music and dance accompanied the treasured item as it was carried out of the museum’s collection. Cheers erupted as Hirut Kassaw, the Ethiopian culture minister, accepted the remains on behalf of her country.

The ceremony was a moment of celebration and reflection. The director of the National Army Museum, Justin Baciejewski, explored the longstanding relationship between Britain and Ethiopia in his opening remarks.

“This campaign which led to the defeat of the Ethiopian army and the suicide of Emperor Tewodros II is a sad chapter in our shared history. A chapter characterised by miscalculation and misjudgement on both sides,” he said.  

“But this campaign does not represent the totality of the long history of friendship and mutual respect between our two ancient kingdoms. In fact, 72 years after Emperor Tewodros II committed suicide, British and Ethiopian forces fought alongside each other as allies in the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian occupation.”

The speech stressed that the decision to return the lock of hair was a “unique” case, based on the symbolic importance of human remains belonging to a former national leader.

“We understand the national significance of Emperor Tewodros II, a father figure of modern Ethiopia,” he said.

His remarks also celebrated Ethiopia’s role as a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations.

It’s natural that word ‘nation’ was used throughout the event. It was a repatriation ceremony after all. But the repetition stood out to me – a reminder that the idea of a nation-state continues to dominate the way we recognise culture.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the item dates back to the 19th century – widely understood to be the age when nationalism cemented itself in European history and began to shape international relations in a way that continues to reverberate.

Ethiopia ceremony

“The hand-over of the locks of hair of Emperor Tewodros the second, come at a time when his vision and ideals of creating a united and strong Ethiopia have been resurrected,” said Kassaw, in a moving speech on the significance of the lock of hair to Ethiopia today.

Her words pointed to the Maqdala Expedition as an “unsavoury” moment in a history of friendship while highlighting the “memorable sacrifices British troops made... during Ethiopia’s War of Liberation” as a sign of friendlier times.

In light of these warmer relations, Kassaw made a bold call for further repatriation.

“The history our great nations share and the spirit of partnership which underpins our relationship, enables a level of honesty and frankness in all of our dialogue. Therefore, I would be remiss in my duty not to take this opportunity to call on all museums and collectors, including the National Army Museum, who retain Maqdala heritage in their collections, to finally right this injustice of history by returning all Maqdala artefacts to their rightful home.”

In other words, returning a lock of hair is a significant step – we need to pick up the pace.

Some European museums are beginning to respond more proactively to calls for restitution and repatriation. In France and the Netherlands, there have been vocal attempts to accelerate action, balanced by a need to identify an item’s rightful home first.  

This sounds like progress. So what about objects belonging to communities whose political status is less clearly defined?

If museum culture is rooted in a worldview dominated by nation-states, how does this affect when museums decide to return historic items, and to whom?

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