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”.
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