The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Ethiopian Showcase - Saturday 20th February 2010

British Museum

Given by - organised by Heidi Cutts

Reviewed by - Gill Davies


Items on display during the British Museum visit.
Photo © Anne Parsons

Thirty members attended our study visit at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London on Saturday 20 February. So popular was it, we had a waiting list of five, and hope to arrange another visit in the future. It was a rare opportunity and privilege to view items relating to Ethiopia that are not normally on display to the general public.

We were first taken to the Centre of Anthropology Library where we were welcomed by Jonathan King, Head of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and had an orientation talk with an introduction to the collections.

Heidi Cutts, Museum Assistant at the African Collection, led the study visit showing material collected by James Theodore Bent (1852-1897) the English explorer and archaeologist, who investigated Aksum, Yeha and Northern Ethiopia. His book Sacred City of the Ethiopians was published in 1893 as a record of his travels and research. A special treat for members was the display of his manuscript ledger where he documented the objects he collected, and described how he acquired particular pieces, together with drawings of people and places - he was able to give a very good 'snap shot' of 19th century Ethiopian life. His plans to explore were interrupted by war (including the Battle of Adwa against the Italians) and this gave him the time to make his well documented collection.

Necklace with amulets and scroll (ADA 1893, 0715/44). Donated to the museum in 1893 by James Theodore Bent.
Photo © Anne Parsons

Items from Bent's collection that were displayed for us included many everyday objects such as a dung Gambetta board, scrolls, jewellery, an amuletic necklace, textiles, a basket with lid, a leather panel, a fly-whisk, a mule collar, a comb, a seal and impression, an ear spoon, hair pins, charms, and cups.

Following this, we were taken to the Sainsbury Africa Galleries Room 25, where we admired the recently restored Crucifixion of Christ (1855) made for the Church of the Saviour of the World at Adwa. This has been the subject of an article in News File (Summer 2008) and shows different episodes of the crucifixion, scenes round the edge being of Bishop Selama and Tewodros II (and wife) at his coronation. It shows the complex relationship between the Church and State. In the gallery there is also an oil painting of the Coronation of Haile Selassie, which depicts the last supper but with animals replacing biblical figures, and a painting of Menelik II in military dress.

We then enjoyed a guided visit to Gallery 66, the so-called Coptic Corridor, although the exhibits are not exclusively Coptic. We admired a delightful painting of the Battle of Adwa of 1896 which shows Menelik II and his army defeating the Italian Colonial forces.

Tej bottle, with decorated leather carrying case, collected by Captain Tristram C S Speedy in 1867-68 during the Magdala campaign (Af1939,09.14.b)
Photo © Anne Parsons

There is also a wooden memorial statue to a Konso warrior, a talismanic scroll with Koranic writing, a censor, processional crosses of the 15th and 16th centuries, a charming diptych, and personal adornments such as neck crosses, anklets and arm rings.

After this stimulating tour, Dorothea McEwan thanked Heidi and her colleagues for giving up their time on a Saturday afternoon to show us some of the items in the museum's collection. A few members stayed on afterwards for tea in the cafeteria to discuss the visit, and to complete the wonderful time we enjoyed together.

First Published in News File Summer 2010

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