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A Tortoise File

The Lost Ark

What happens when a museum possesses a group of objects so sacred that they can never be seen in public or studied in private – and the original owners want them back?

The Lost Ark

First published
Tuesday 19 April 2022

Last updated
Monday 18 April 2022

Why this story?

Museums all over the world are facing a reckoning about the objects in their collections – where they came from, how they were obtained, and whether it is now time to give them back.

Usually, institutions make the case that only they have the expertise and resources to safely preserve and display such treasures and provide access for academic study. Most people will be familiar with the saga of the “Elgin Marbles” which have been in the care of the British Museum for nearly 200 years, and remain one of the most prominent public displays at the museum in Bloomsbury, despite the demands of the Greek government for their return.

But what if none of the usual arguments apply? We became fascinated with the fate of the Ethiopian tabots – a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, preserved in 11 wood and stone plaques. They were looted almost 150 years ago, but the artefacts have such religious significance that they cannot be publicly displayed or privately studied. Yet the museum has long resisted demands to return the looted treasures.

We wanted to find out: why won’t the museum hand them back? David Taylor, Editor