A FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST has been submitted to the British Museum for information about 11 sacred Tabots, which many argue should be returned to their home in Ethiopia. 

The FOI request was submitted by law firm Leigh Day on behalf of Returning Heritage, a not-for-profit online resource to provide reliable information on cultural restitution. It requires the museum to provide details of all requests to return the Tabots since 1990; details of the responses to these requests; and details of when trustees met to discuss these different appeals, what decisions they made and why.

The FOI request requires the museum to reply within 20 working days. Depending on the response provided to the FOI request, the team behind Returning Heritage will consider launching proceedings in the Information Tribunal against the British Museum for any refusal of information, or any inadequate response. A formal complaint to the Charity Commission may also be considered.

The 11 Tabots are replicas of the stone tablets inscribed with the 10 Commandments, given to Moses after the Jewish exodus from Egypt in 1300 BC and believed to have been kept in the Ark of the Covenant until the exile to Babylon in 597 BC, when it disappeared. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church holds the replica tablets to be of such sacred importance that they are believed to personify the saint to whom they are dedicated. A church of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith which has been deprived of its Tabot cannot fully function as a place of worship.

Most of the British Museum’s collection of Tabots were acquired in 1868 after they were looted by British imperial forces during their Abyssinian campaign in the aftermath of the Battle of Maqdala.

In acknowledgement of the sanctity of the Tabots, the British Museum has never put them on public display, but kept them away from view in its vaults. Never allowed to be studied, copied or photographed, the Tabots have remained untouched for 150 years.

A legal opinion was commissioned by Leigh Day on behalf of The Scheherazade Foundation in September 2021 on the legal position of returning the Tabots. The opinion, by Samantha Knights QC of Matrix Chambers, confirmed that the Tabots can be returned to their country of origin under Section 5 of the British Museum Act 1963. The provisions of the Act allow for the return of museum objects deemed unfit to be retained, “no longer useful or relevant to the museum’s purpose” and “without detriment to students”. This legal opinion was sent to the trustees of the museum in September 2021 but they have provided no response.

Lewis McNaught, managing editor of Returning Heritage, said: “There is probably no other group of objects in the British Museum’s collection that so perfectly meets the Museum’s own criteria for ’unfit to be retained’. This FOI request aims to tease out the reasons why trustees believe the opposite”.

Tom Short, solicitor at Leigh Day working on the case alongside trainee solicitor Rhiannon Adams, added: “Our client hopes that this FOI request will reveal what consideration the British Museum has given to returning the 11 sacred Tabots after years of silence. It is also hoped that it will reveal the scale of requests received by the Museum to send these religiously significant objects back to their home in Ethiopia. As set out in the legal opinion we commissioned on behalf of the Scheherazade Foundation earlier this year, the trustees of the British Museum have the power to return the Tabots using powers under the British Museum Act 1963. Our client considers it crucial that this information is put into the public domain.”

* More information from Returning Heritage here.

* Source: Leigh Day