British Council pays £1m to Sudanese museums demanding return of colonial artefacts


The British Council has paid £1million to Sudanese museums which are now demanding the UK repatriate the cultural treasures.

The independent body projects soft power by funding cultural programs around the world, and in 2018 awarded a grant to three museums in Sudan overseen by the country’s National Society of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM).

The head of NCAM has now demanded the UK repatriate the items taken by imperial troops in the 19th century and suggested they could be moved to Sudanese museums which have received UK funding.

Funding organizations pushing for repatriation has raised questions about how UK quangos choose to allocate money, including taxpayers’ money.

Dr Eglal el-Malik, director of conservation at NCAM, has called for the return of banners, armor and human remains taken after Britain crushed Sudanese resistance at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

It is hoped these items can be donated to the Khalifa House Museum in Omdurman, one of three NCAM institutions to receive a share of a £997,000 grant from the British Council.

Armor and Skulls Wanted

The Battle of Omdurman was fought between Britain and the Mahdi forces, who had previously defeated General Charles Gordon at the Siege of Khartoum, and tokens were taken from the battlefield by the victors.

Sudan is now demanding the return of a banner used by the forces of the Mahdi, a messianic Muslim leader, which is now kept in the Palace Green Library at Durham University. The university said it was working closely with Sudanese officials.

Mahdi armor now held by the Royal Armories is also wanted, along with the two skulls taken from the battlefield by explorers Reginald Koettlitz and Henry Wellcome, now in the collection of the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum .

Dr. El-Malik recently announced, regarding the Omdurman artifacts: “We need to have a big campaign. These people are our brothers, our heroes. They united and defended our country. It is a very special story of resistance to imperialism.

She added, in a statement to The Guardian, that “their descendants should see it all here.”

“British heritage under attack”

Museum officials in Sudan are supposed to be realistic about the threats to these treasures in their home country. Concerns have been raised about the return of items to potentially unstable regions and the use of UK funding.

Robert Poll, who has campaigned for the conservation of Britain’s heritage with the group Save Our Statues, said: “The culture most under attack right now is our own. We give millions to help the heritage of others, but stand there while statues are torn down around us.

“Funding overseas museums, who then want to strip our museums, is another example of independent bodies giving UK taxpayers’ money to those who appear to be working against UK interests.”

Addressing history “written by white men”

The review of British Council funding came after concerns were raised over spending by cultural quangos, including Arts Council England, which distributes funds to UK museums and galleries.

The Telegraph has revealed millions of books have been donated by the Arts Council to advisory body Museum Development England, which has pledged to help with ‘equity and inclusion’ and address history “written by white men”.

Another quango, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, invested £1m in 2020 to create a ‘dictionary’ of slave traders and owners, and another £800,000 to fund a review of controversial statues.

Funding provided by the British Council, a non-departmental government body which receives funding from the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport, is intended to restore conflict-stricken Sudanese museums in the region.

The British Council has been approached for comment.

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