Museums in the Capital Reflect the Nation

Story: Norman Sung
Photography: Norman Sung
Thursday, February 1 2018

Ethiopia is a land of fascinating cultures steeped in history. Its location in north-east Africa, spanning the high plateaus where the waters flow down to the Nile, to the Rift Valley corridor that stretches from the Red Sea into the African continent, places it at the centre of cross-roads between Africa and Arabia, with further connections to the Levant and South Asia. Ethiopia has seen a series of kingdoms whose power waxed and waned, and it has drawn people and ideas from all around. It is this combination that makes Ethiopia so interesting to visit.

A land so rich in culture and history will have many treasures and artifacts, and Ethiopia is no exception. There are the large physical structures – castles, churches, stellae fields – that you must visit on-site, some of which have adjoining museums displaying objects and providing explanations of life in the period and historical timeline. There are excellent museums in Addis Ababa containing treasures from across the country, with focus of the different peoples that constitute modern Ethiopia. Some of the religious treasures, including carvings and paintings, are found in the practicing churches themselves. These are perhaps some of the most meaningful to me because they are truly living museums, where things from long in the past are kept and cherished and remain part of the place, woven into the lives of the people today and in the future.

Let's Start at the Beginning

4.4 million and 3.2 million years ago beginning, with Ardi and Lucy. Ancestors of all of us likely, the first human-like ape species found, both in the Afar Region in north-eastern Ethiopia. These remains (or their plaster replicas because of fear of damage) are on display in the lower floor of the National Museum in Addis Ababa.

While it may be comforting to know finally who our great-great-great...great-grandmother might have been (both were female), enlivened by discussions on exactly which characteristics ought to be the criteria for distinguishing between humans and apes on the explanatory panels, the entire lower floor is dedicated to the display of the prehistorical environment with fossils of many species – horses, rhinoceros, crocodiles, pigs – found in Ethiopia from different eras on display. We can compare the same species from different eras and clearly see the differences in size, teeth, feet and other physical aspects. Different species in the same time period show responses to similar forces – for instance, adapting to taller or shorter grasses.

Over such a long scale of time, there has been both global and local climate changes cycles in Ethiopia and the world. But there is one additional force specific to Ethiopia and East Africa – the eastern most part of Africa pulling apart creating subsiding zones of land which is the Rift Valley. Today, much of the Danakil area where these fossils were found is below sea level, and it is predicted that in a few million years, this area will sink so deep it will be under water, similar to the Red Sea today. I suspect that during the period when the fossils were alive, the area geography was quite different. However, I could find no maps or explanations giving that context there.

So how does a country that is so imbued with religion (Christian Orthodox, Muslim), and where individuals are truly devout as I have witnessed, react to this blatantly Darwinian scientific evidence? Well, in what I consider to be indicative of the Ethiopian way, the local who was hanging around me hoping to be my guide, and who introduced himself as a chemical engineering student, told me that at first, it was hard for him to accept this because of the religious indoctrination, but finally he came to accept and understand the scientific view as well, and now accepts that both views can co-exist simultaneously. We were drawn into further discussion, and soon he became less interested in earning a few hundred Birrs from me than having a genuine dialogue and exchanging viewpoints.

We Don't Fight to Erase History – What Has Happened Has Happened

The main floor is primarily a showcase of the ceremonial and personal objects of modern Ethiopian Emperors – ceremonial robes, Haile Selassie's oversized thrown behind a glass case, etc. Paintings of the Leaders of Modern Ethiopia from Menelik II on – Yohannes, Haile Selassie hang from the balcony. Meles Zenawi is also there, but so is Mengistu Haile Mariam.

That surprised me. Zenawi fought Mengistu and the Derg for decades and eventually deposed him. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 and has been tried and sentenced to death in absentia for the Red Terror abuses during his reign. There is even a Red Terror Museum on the south-west side of Meskel Square where you can see this sad and depressing saga (I did not go, but I fully appreciate what had happened). So why would the despised ancient regime still have a portrait in the National Museum? And that is not the only place instance. As I traveled around the country, I saw it in other places such as restaurants, hotels or as the stage backdrop in dinner-show restaurants that feature lively, energetic dance shows attended primarily by locals.

I asked. The answer was simply “it is a part of our history”. What a refreshingly mature attitude that is! Here in North America, especially in the recent year, we are caught up in bitter, emotional fights over symbols of past injustice and oppression: removals lead to reprisals, and it is a waste of time and energy tug-o-war with both parties not moving very far. The Ethiopian view I heard was laudable: it is what it is, it was not good, but we can still carry on and do better from here, so why do we need to erase or deny?

Paintings and Objects That Portray Ethiopian Life

The next floor up contains paintings and some sculptures made mostly in the past century. These depict scenes from traditional Ethiopian life, such as women drinking coffee and weaving together, to political commentaries specific to the period (such as the rising discontent a year after the revolution painted in 1975) or more general (a rather abstract painting expressing the wish that people would stop leaving Africa, through a sad mother's pair of eyes). Of course, some of Afewerke Tekle's paintings are there – a must given his fame. I find many paintings to be outstanding. In some ways, the painting display reminds me of a similar exhibit in the New South Wales Museum in Sydney.

The top floor housed folk objects from different regional groups: traditional musical instruments, weaved cloth with patterns from Dorze, neck crosses, beautifully woven baskets and mesobs, water containers and hunting spears and shields from different peoples in the south.

After a quick late lunch break in the outdoor garden at Lucy Gazebo next door, I walked about two kilometers up to the Ethnology Museum deep in the back of the Addis Ababa University campus. Housed in a former palace of Haile Selassie who donated it to create the university in the 1960s (that explains the beautiful trees, gardens and grand boulevard leading to it!), the Ethnology Museum is part university department that does active research and teaching. It contains a great collection with good narrative panels.

While it tried to lay out the displays at each life stage – from birth, to adulthood, to death, and group objects of different Ethiopian peoples together to compare and contrast in each life stage, that wasn't entirely successful. Some of the major groupings include the influence of the big religions on Ethiopia (Christianity, Islam), native agriculture (teff, coffee, enset), husbandry (raising chickens played a significant part of the culture for women in the north, for instance), textiles, other weavings (baskets) and pottery, coffee pots different groups of southern peoples – cultural practices, hunting and fishing implements (spears, nets, canoes), a line of Konso wagas.

Next floor up is a large room displaying many very stylistic Orthodox crosses and a few religious paintings, with sections in the back dedicated to Ethiopian musical instruments – string, drums, woodwinds, and show the regional distribution in the use of each with tape recordings of the sounds.

Through my travels around the country, I became particularly intrigued by the masinko – a single string instrument used in the north, commonly seen being carried by a traveling minstrel (azmeri) who uses it to accompany his singing – telling stories and jokes to entertain people. How a single string can create such soulful tones, in that distinctly Ethiopian sound, was amazing to me.

National and Ethnology Museums are good starting points to the rest of Ethiopia. In the next post, I will talk about a place where the whole town is a museum.

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