Museums are an important place to learn about the history and culture of any country. But this does not seem to be well-understood in Ethiopia where museums are handled unprofessionally and are exposed to damages. While most museums don’t have enough facilities and are not well-preserved, they are also not visited by many tourists because of their poor records. EBR’s Kiya Ali explores.
It was the first time for Tekeste Meskele to visit the Addis Ababa Museum on September, 2019, with an aim to know the history of the capital city of Ethiopia. Initially, Tekeste was excited when he saw the treasures showcased inside the museum. Unfortunately, he was not able to keep up with the momentum as the power went off soon after. He was expecting the generator to be turned on by the administration of the museum, but that was not the case. Instead, Tekeste and six other visitors were told to leave the museum, because of the power outage.
“This is so disappointing,” says Tekeste pathetically. “It is shameful for a place that is home to the most valuable assets of the capital to experience power outages without a backup generator.”
While this portrays the low-level of attention given to the museums by authorities, such experiences are not uncommon throughout Ethiopia. Even in the oldest National Museum, the generator is not functioning well, resulting in disruption of services and frustration of tourists whenever there is a power interruption. “This is a common problem. Once I travelled with 47 tourists to the Ethnological Museum found inside Addis Ababa University’s main campus and we were not able to explore it as there was no electricity at the moment,” says Kibrom Tesfaye, a tour guide.
In addition, most of the museums in Addis do not meet the standards set by the International Council of Museums (ICoM). Although museums are expected to exhibit the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment, the existing ones are criticized for failing to meet these criteria.
The ICoM definition of a museum is as a non-profit and permanent institution established in the service of society. Museums also should be open to the public. They are important to showcase the image and history of a given country. For instance, Addis Ababa Museum was constructed towards the end of 1880 during the reign of Emperor Menelik II. Initially, the house that serves as the Addis Ababa Museum was constructed as a warehouse to accumulate weapons. It was then given to Ras Birru Wolde Gabriel when he got married to Amakelech Ali.
But, during the Italian invasion, the house was administered by Italians and served as a clinic from 1928 to 1933. Although after a short time the house was returned back to Ras Birru and served as a residence for his children, it was latter repossessed by the Dergue regime. Subsequently, it continued on to serve as a school, factory and at one point, as a government office.
Addis Ababa Museum got its current form in 1979, with direction from the former mayor of Addis Ababa, Zewde Teklu, when the city celebrated its 100th anniversary. “The main objective of establishing the Addis Ababa Museum is to create a place where the historical background and progress of the city could be narrated,” Mekdes Ababu, a tour guide at Addis Ababa Museum tells EBR. “Besides the valuable heritage it contains, the house itself is historical.”
The Museum is a one storey building with seven rooms. On the ground floor, there are four permanent exhibition rooms. The first room exhibits the establishment of Addis Ababa via photos and displayed relics. The second room holds photos which show the progress of Addis Ababa, while the third room narrates the battle of Adwa. In the fourth room one can see the facts of why Addis Ababa is a diplomatic center.
In its upper floor, on the other hand, there are two rooms that are dedicated to art works by different artists and showcases the gifts given to the museum when Addis Ababa celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Museum also has an additional room that is dedicated for temporary exhibition. Anyone wishing to display his/her works can do so for free inside this room.
However, despite its importance the museum, it is not well-kept. The materials inside the museum are not being preserved properly and there are also times when they are exposed to physical contact by visitors. In addition, there are less facilities in the museum. “Rooms are not properly cleaned, the toilet is below standard, and the displays and lighting are not comfortable for visitors,” Kibrom states.
The same is true for the National Museum of Ethiopia, which is the oldest museum in the capital. Established in 1944, the National Museum is a four storey building located at Amist Kilo along St. George Avenue. The collection housed in the basement of the building ranges from the 3.5 million and 4.4-million-year-old skeletons of Lucy and Ardi, respectively, to the youngest human race skeleton of Selma, which dates back to 3.3 million years. Various stone equipment that were used for different purposes during the time of early human civilization are also found inside the museum. The paleontological exhibit is explained throughout the basement level in a series of panels. The ground floor of the exhibition hall holds the recent history of Ethiopians and modern-day culture. The royal and imperial relics fill a large section of the ground floor but there are also ancient tools and archaeological findings from Axum and Tigray. In addition, on the ground floor, a multimedia presentation narrates the birth and development of humanity.
The National Museum also holds more than 2,000 ancient, cultural and modern artifacts. These artifacts and handicrafts are found on the upper two floors of the museum. The paintings, sculptures, and mixed media art are grouped together as weaving, jewelry, Muslim artifacts and Christian artifacts. Yet, although most of the objects are accompanied by written explanations in Amharic and English, the historical background of the handicrafts is not well explained when it comes to their functions and the location from where they were collected. “The objects and dresses are broadly categorized as Christian, Muslim, and musical instruments without giving sufficient information,” stresses Winnie Carlos, an international visitor who met EBR while visiting the National Museum.
The National Museum is annually visited by more than 200,000 people who come from different corners of the world. However, the museum is surrounded by many problems that need attention from the respective stakeholders. To begin with, the rooms are not suitable for people who have physical mobility problems. What’s more, there is also an issue with guidance services at the Museum. Although the museum has its own guides, they give service only upon the request of the visitor.
“Most foreign visitors come with their own guides and the larger share of local visitors are coming from schools. So, we recommend the explanation to be given by their guides and teachers,” says Nigusu Mekonen, senior education officer at the National Museum of Ethiopia.
But such a practice is not recommended, according to industry insiders. “Unless guidance service is given by the museum, there is a high probability that the history of the items inside the museums will be distorted,” says Kibrom. “This, coupled with the absence of detailed published materials inside the museum, might result in international visitors grasping the wrong history.”
Some of the artwork inside the National Museum have no label and ambiguous cursory captions. The roof of the museum leaks in drops of rain during the rainy season. Also noted with concern was the gift shop of the museum which had only few items to be sold. The poor quality of posters and T-shirts being sold at the museum is another disappointing fact. “This makes the annual revenues from the gift shop below ETB50,000,” Foiza Umer, sales officer at the gift shop stresses. This is why its total annual revenue remains around one million Birr, although the annual budget of the museum is between three and four million Birr.
Understanding the low-level attention given to the museums and their importance to the image of the country, the Ethiopian Heritage Preservation Authority is working to improve their landscape. One of the projects is aimed at expanding the national museum with a cost of ETB700 million. “The project also aims to make the museum’s collection more inclusive because it currently contains the tradition, culture and history of a few groups that were dominant in the past,” says Fanta Beyene, head of Communications at the Authority.
With the advent of information technology, museums around the world are now forced to consider digitalizing and disseminating their collection via the Internet. However, most museums in Ethiopia do not even have proper websites, while early booking is only available after face to face communication, and they are not multilingual. Addis Ababa Museum, for instance, does not have a website. Since it is not promoted properly, the number of visitors is as low as 18,000 people annually. “This is as a result of the year’s long negligence by authorities to museums. Thus, Ethiopian museums need more attention and investment at this moment,” Fanta stresses.
8th Year • Oct.16 – Nov.15 2019 • No. 79