Sudanese Museums Call for Return of Stolen Artifacts

Colonizers took the items after a deadly battle in the late 19th century

An image of a painting of the Battle of Omdurman, which led Sudan to be under British rule
This painting by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. depicts the Battle of Omdurman. Richard Caton Woodville Jr. via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

In the Battle of Omdurman, British and Egyptian armies devastated Sudanese forces—and then collected trophies from the battlefield. Now, museum officials in Sudan want to retrieve these stolen artifacts. 

The “most controversial items” are two skulls, which are now held at the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh, reports Artnet’s Jo Lawson-Tancred. Other artifacts include a banner of Sudanese leaders that is now in Durham University’s Palace Green Library.

Why are Sudanese officials asking for these artifacts to be returned now? After undergoing restoration, a museum in Omdurman is set to reopen soon—and it will explore the British colonization of Sudan, according to the Guardian’s Jason Burke and Zeinab Mohammed Salih. 

“I want to show the real detail of the battle of Omdurman and I cannot do that without all the items,” curator Ahmed Mohammed tells the Guardian. “It is very important for the Sudanese people to know.”

The Battle of Omdurman is a pivotal chapter in Sudanese history. By the end of the 1898 battle, the Mahdists, who ruled Sudan at the time, suffered around 10,000 casualties, while the British and Egyptians only saw 500 dead. “The results of the battle were the practical extinction of Mahdism in the Sudan and the establishment of British dominance there,” as Encyclopedia Britannica puts it. The United Kingdom ruled over the country until 1956.

The act of taking items from the battlefield as spoils was common during colonial campaigns, according to the Guardian. Now, Sudanese officials say that the repatriation of these artifacts would help Sudan tell the story of the Battle of Omdurman.

“These people are our brothers, our heroes. They unified and defended our country,” says Eglal el-Malik, the director of conservation at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, to the Guardian. “It is a very special story of resistance to imperialism.”

The institutions currently holding these items say they are open to listening. At Durham University, a spokesperson tells the Guardian that Sudan’s loan requests are still under discussion. At the University of Edinburgh, anatomy professor Tom Gillingwater says that the institution has not received a formal request for the return of the skulls.

“We take our colonial legacy—and its contemporary impact—very seriously, and are continuing to examine ways to address these important issues,” Gillingwater tells the Guardian.

In recent years, questions surrounding stolen artifacts are gaining traction. The British Museum recently agreed to open talks about returning Greek sculptures, often called the Elgin marbles, to Athens. (Still, not much has happened on that front; per ARTnews’ Tessa Solomon, just last weekend protesters surrounded the British Museum with signs reading, “Reunify the Marbles!”)

Other countries have spoken more decisively. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” French President Emmanuel Macron told a crowd in Burkina Faso a few years ago. Last year, Germany agreed to return the Benin Bronzes, taken from Nigeria in 1897, to be displayed in a new museum in Benin City. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.