Ullendorff (1951) writes in the preface to the catalogue that it is “safe to assume that the majority of the MSS here described were acquired in Ethiopia by individual members of Napier’s expedition in 1867/68. After the death of their owners many found their way to auction sales and were then purchased by the Bodleian Library.” Of these 66, there are eleven that are explicitly and definitively linked to Maqdala, all either purchased or donated in the decades following the expedition. From this information we can reasonably infer that none of the Ethiopian manuscripts in the Bodleian Library’s collection were acquired directly from the expedition in the way that Richard Holmes was able to secure an assortment of manuscripts on behalf of the British Museum. Instead, it is likely that the texts in the Bodleian’s collection were first held in private collections throughout the United Kingdom. However, these circumstances of acquisition are not dissimilar from the ways that many objects make their way into museums: by auction or by donation. Furthermore, however they may have come to the Bodleian Library, since their acquisition none of these manuscripts have been on display as part of an exhibition. The Weston Library of the Bodleian system, which is responsible for rare books and manuscripts, put on an exhibition of Ethiopic manuscripts from July – October 2019 as part of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Co-curation Project, however this exhibition focused on a later set of manuscripts that were not linked to Maqdala. Still, it is not at all uncommon for objects in museums to be left off display – what audiences see in a museum is really the tip of the iceberg of the museum’s total holdings, and museums themselves often aren’t even completely aware of every item in their possession. It therefore seems that it is not necessarily only the methods of acquisition or the processes of display that have directed the attention of cultural restitution debates towards museums rather than libraries. It’s not because libraries are exempt from restitution claims, as Oxford University guidelines on the return of cultural objects state that they govern both libraries and gardens in addition to museums. In practice, however, it is not the case that the Bodleian has been equally affected by these policies. So, why is it then that the Pitt Rivers Museum has frequently had to engage openly with the issue of restitution while the Bodleian Library sits down the road largely undisturbed?
One possible answer to this question has to do with accessibility.
Museums on a whole are institutions that are open to the public – many of them offer free admission and operate on an audience-facing mentality. It is indisputable that museums function to disseminate knowledge through material heritage and culture, regardless of whether we consider this knowledge to be positive or negative. Thus, their raison d’être is inextricably linked to actively making it known what they have in their collections, even if they aren’t able to publicize every single item equally. Libraries, however, like archives, are much more elusive institutions when it comes to finding out what they contain, and depending on the nature of the particular library there are often restrictions on who can access this information. This is especially the case with private libraries such as those at universities. To access the Bodleian library’s collection requires either being a member of Oxford University or holding a reader card; to apply for a reader card, one generally has to demonstrate a research need and be affiliated with an institution. Once past that hurdle, to know what Ethiopian manuscripts are held by the Bodleian it is necessary to consult the physical catalogues in the David Reading Room of the Weston Library in Oxford, which are not digitized. If one actually wants to access and view the manuscripts themselves, they must apply for an unrestricted card, which must be approved by the special collections staff based on research qualifications. Given these barriers, it would be quite difficult for most people who are interested in pursuing cultural restitution to actually find out what the Bodleian Library has in its holdings that might be subject to this process. By contrast, even though they are certainly not entirely transparent about their collections, museums present relatively easy targets for cultural restitution. The difference in accessibility may not completely explain the disparity in the attention given to museums and libraries, but I would argue that it should be taken seriously into consideration. Consequently, efforts must be made to further explore the provenance of library collections with an aim towards openly acknowledging and addressing their diverse and potentially problematic histories so that they can be incorporated more actively in these conversations.
Expanding the scope of cultural restitution beyond museums is a necessary step in more fully reckoning with Oxford’s, and, more broadly, England’s, colonial histories.
Despite having not itself been subject to colonialism in an official sense, some scholars such as Donald Crummey (2003) have argued that Ethiopia’s approach to history and heritage has nevertheless been shaped by both colonial and postcolonial systems. In particular, he claims that the European incursion into Africa that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the modern, bordered nation-state had a profound impact on Ethiopian concepts of nationhood. In this way, the legacies of European colonialism and global imperialism have still been felt in contemporary Ethiopia, however Ethiopia’s negotiation of its history and national identity in the period of African decolonization have taken different forms from those found in former colonies. Namely, Ethiopian historiography has constructed an image of modern Ethiopia based on an exceptional past dating back to biblical times; the fact that Ethiopia resisted colonial rule during the period of African colonization reinforces the sense of exceptionalism. Emperor Tewodros’s suicide in the face of the storming of Maqdala is therefore seen as a symbol of Ethiopian resistance to being dominated by Europeans. The call to repatriate the stolen Maqdala treasures in this framework can be read not as a desire to restore a lost dignity or independence but rather as an investment in visualizing this history for the purposes of consolidating the modernity that is promised by this narrative of greatness. What this case shows us, illustrated by the story of the Maqdala manuscripts in the Bodleian library, is that the historical and contemporary issues of cultural restitution are not “one size fits all” when it comes to the relationship between Oxford and colonialism/imperialism. The fact that Ethiopia was not colonized by the British does not preclude its inclusion in these debates, nor does it mean that imbalances of power are not just as present. The effects of empire have been felt throughout Europe and Africa in a myriad of different ways, and we must make room for this complexity and heterogeneity as we negotiate this history. The University of Oxford may not have been involved in the sacking of Maqdala, but it is accountable to the ways in which it has benefited from and legitimized the violence of that expedition through its acquisition and uncritical retention of sacred texts in the Bodleian Library.
It is not enough for the University to simply include libraries in its guidelines on the restitution of cultural objects.
Like museums are increasingly required to do, measures should be put in place to encourage university libraries to research and publicly publish on the provenance of their collections. So long as the spotlight is on museums like the Pitt Rivers, libraries like the Bodleian will continue to function as hidden archives of the imperial violence that took place on the African continent during the 19th and 20th centuries. Delving more deeply into the histories of these library collections can expand our understanding of the nature of this violence, as well as of the various ways it has impacted African societies and Euro-African relations in the decades since. The Bodleian library describes its collection of Ethiopian manuscripts as one of the most prestigious in Europe, yet it makes no mention of the fact that it owes this collection to looting and destruction. We cannot assume that the absence of colonial rule equates to a lack of responsibility to repair such historical wrongs, which have had far-reaching consequences. While the Ethiopian and Eritrean Co-curation Project is a positive collaboration between the University and diaspora communities in the U.K., it does not disrupt the problematic dynamic that the Bodleian perpetuates by continuing to function as a gatekeeper to source communities’ own knowledge, histories, and culture – communities that increasingly include immigrant diasporas around the world. That is, there is an ongoing, colonial-reminiscent inequality between the Bodleian Library and the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities that it collaborates with because the Bodleian still has full control over what manuscripts and information they make available. Working towards increasing source communities’ access to Bodleian collections should be only one part of a larger process of addressing the legacies of injustice that stem from European imperialism. This process must include open engagement with the possibility that the ownership of texts in their collection may be contested, and making the necessary resources more widely available so that restitution, in whatever form this may take, can move forward.