British collecting in Ethiopia, 1769 to 1972
: travellers, military expeditions, museums and royal gifting

  • Alexandra Watson Jones

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


The Ethiopian objects found in Britain’s museums and cultural institutions today reflect over two centuries of interconnected history, and multiple shifts in the political, diplomatic, and cultural relationships between the two countries. Through an interdisciplinary approach which draws on Ethiopian Studies, African Art History, Histories of Collecting, Anthropology, and Museum Studies, this thesis explores the role of material culture in interactions between the two countries and their inhabitants, and considers what objects can reveal about those relationships. It uses Ethiopian objects in the collection of National Museums Scotland (NMS) as its starting point, along with collections from other UK institutions including the British Museum, the V&A, the Horniman Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Powell-Cotton Museum, and the Royal Collection. It examines collecting carried out by James Bruce, Henry Salt, J. Theodore and Mabel Bent, and Percy Powell-Cotton on their travels to Ethiopia in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It considers military collecting both in the context of the 1867-8 British expedition to Maqdala and during the 1936-41 Italian occupation, with a particular focus on the collecting activities of William Simpson and Alexander Tancred Curle, and examines the work of ethnomusicologist Jean Jenkins and archaeologist Jean Brown Sassoon in the mid-20th century. It also explores how three Ethiopian emperors—Tewodros II, Menelik II and Haile Selassie I—made use of gifts in their diplomatic interactions with Britain. As Britain’s cultural institutions increasingly seek to closely interrogate the histories of their collections, responding to a growing global discourse about the complex, controversial and violent histories that have resulted in many objects being accessioned into museums, this thesis brings Ethiopia—the only African country never to have been officially colonised by a European power—more fully into the discourse surrounding museums and collecting histories.
Date of Award4 Dec 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorKate Ellen Cowcher (Supervisor) & John Giblin (Supervisor)


  • Museums
  • Collecting
  • Ethiopia
  • Histories of collecting
  • Maqdala
  • Abyssinia
  • Colonial collecting
  • Looting
  • African art
  • Indigenous agency

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 28 May 2029

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