Ethiopian studies in the eyes of chief curator Featured

25 Jun 2018

Today’s guest is Assistant Prof. Ahmed Zekaria. He is Chief curator of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Museum. He has involved in different layers of museum activities. At the beginning, he was junior museum staff at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and then he grew up through ladders to reach the highest point of chief curator. For three years, he was vice president of African Museum Association. He knows about museums like the back of his hand. To this point, he has involved in assorted layers of museum activities across the country. Furthermore, he has visited museums all over the world.
By the same token, Assistant Prof. Ahmed has successfully got himself involved in documentation, conservation, display, exhibition and catalogue preparation and what have you. Aside from realizing museums in different parts of the country, he has been getting himself engaged in international exhibitions and conferences time and again.
He is one of the few individuals who did museum studies across the country without exaggeration. He has a rich experience in the museum world and thus he has been helping in realizing museums all over the country. A case in point, he was instrumental in realizing museums of Entoto, Geyorgis, Ankober, the Addis Ababa museum, among others.
The Ethiopian Herald had a short stay with Assistant Prof. Ahmed with the purpose of familarizing readers with the nuts and bolts of Ethiopian Studies. Excerpts:
How and when was the Institute of Ethiopian Studies established?
The history of this museum takes us back to the early days of 1950. The idea evolved at the Arat Killo campus of the University of College of Addis Ababa. The initiator of the idea was the then chief librarian of the college, Stanislaw Chojnaki. The startup collection came through the Old Italian zoological species collection and the ethnographic pieces donated by the first batch of graduates of the college.
In 1963, the collection of the museum split into two parts. The zoological species collection remained at Arat Kilo and evolved into the Natural History Museum. The ethnographic collections were used as the base for the Ethnographic Museum of the newly founded Institute of Ethiopian studies. Since then the museums have been serving the university community particularly in the teaching-learning and research process. Moreover, they have served the public at large in awareness creation of the country’s wealth in natural and cultural resources.
The museum is located in the main campus of Addis Ababa University. The campus used to be the palace of the late Emperor Haileselassie for more than three decades. Its name, Genete Leul Palace, literally meant “the Princess’s Paradise.” At the present time, the Institute of Ethiopian Studies remains the leading research institute and the largest storehouse of Ethiopian Studies in the fields of social sciences and humanities.
What services does the Institute of Ethiopian Studies offer?
To begin with, the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, which hosts international conferences of Ethiopian studies every nine years, is a center of research and publication and comprises the country’s principle research library on Ethiopia. The library which is entirely devoted to Ethiopian Studies has a comprehensive collection of printed books, periodicals and microfilms in all languages as well as an important collection of manuscripts and archives, popular art and fine Islamic calligraphy.
The Ethnological museum displays outstanding examples of Ethiopian material culture in all its diversity. The museum likewise includes a music center and postal and numismatic collections. What is more, memories of the former palace are vividly portrayed in the Emperor’s bedroom suite. While we are on the subject, the intended target of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies is creating a strong understanding support on the country by carrying out and coordinating research. It as well works to disseminate research outputs placing much emphasis on humanities and social sciences. Apart from reflecting and representing the material and spiritual cultures of the diverse ethnic groups of the country, the institute assists in the conservation of Ethiopia’s cultural heritages via collecting, cataloguing and displaying in the museum.
What is the reaction of tourists towards the Institute of Ethiopian Studies?
To start with, the Institute of Ethiopian studies (IES) is housed in the Emperor Haile Selassie’s palace. It is the world’s largest and most important source of information on Ethiopia. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies library comprises an important and growing collection of foreign publications on Ethiopia as well as books and newspapers printed in the country. Furthermore, there are quite a lot of rare manuscripts, including protective magic scrolls, photographs, films and maps. Flipping back to the gist, when on earth tourists come to IES, they forward their respect and admiration in a little while. They do not believe their eyes. They turned out to be infinitely happy as they can easily discover the inside out of the different cultures of Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, I have not seen any disappointed tourists as far as this.
It is a new discovery for them. For visitors, I consider the museum as appetizer or starter. The museum is one of the best in Africa. Tourists should visit the Institute Ethiopian Studies so as to discover the inside out of the entire Ethiopia. After they have visited, they can go to fields to have more information and knowledge about the different cultures of the different Nations, Nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.
As we have trained guides with bachelor degrees, they handle tourists with no trouble. All of them are well-versed. As they are on familiar terms with the nitty-gritty of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, they clearly explain the whole thing in relation to the museum.
Does the Institute of Ethiopian Studies give a clear picture of the different Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia?
Well, yes and no. We are dealing with the cultures of the different Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia. But we are not specifying them as we cannot represent the entire country better through the conceptual way rather than the regional way. As there are a lot of regional museums, we are not going to imitate and compete with regional ones. Each of them can have their own ethnographic museums. At this point in time, we are abstracting the beauties of all Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia. We are making an effort with a view to giving representation of the country as a whole.
The library and the Museum are both seriously overcrowded. Space is lacking for new library acquisitions and for the display of many treasures. Moreover, we have a range of documents accessible to researchers. If one becomes a member, one can easily join and use our documents. Besides the academic staff, Masters and PhD students are allowed to do researches. They can make use of the library as they wish. The museum and Library are supported by the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. This voluntary fund raising organization, which operates a museum shop, has been responsible for the acquisition of the vast majority of museum holdings.
What benefits do we secure out of ethnographic studies?
Before I move straight to your question, I would like to say a few things pertaining to museums. To start with, museums are mainly areas of memoires like that of libraries. In museums, one can easily come across memories of individuals, events, history and what have. Furthermore, they give quite a lot of dimensions through material cultures and intangible representations. Above and beyond, they are areas where one can deposit memoires of the past and present.
To return to the point, an Ethnographic museum is supposed to give memories of the living cultures of a certain country. In museums, one can deposit materials. For instance, in the museum we display different generations of pots and a range of ceremonial materials. In this way, one can deposit them in the museum for centuries with no trouble. We can as well transform yesterday’s pots into a range of shapes and forms in the present day.
In this fashion, we can appreciate the ingenuity of human mind, technologies, working process and esthetic values. This reality on the ground gives memories of the past. They are amazing ones. Furthermore, one can plan what one has to do down the road. To cut a long story short, ethnographic materials give a clear picture of the past and the present apart from helping one to forecast the future.
What is your take on the academic Journal of Ethiopia Studies?
Journal of Ethiopian studies was created from ethnological bulletin. The first issue was published in 1963. We have published 48 volumes to this point. There were intermittent periods two to three times. Journal of Ethiopia studies is a reputable one. It is the best and most respected journal all over the world. Besides, it is tremendously an essential element for researchers. Until recently, it was the first journal of the university.
There are a lot of competing journals in humanity, social sciences, linguistics and the so forth. I would say, the Academic Journal of Ethiopia Studies helps us know more about Ethiopia. The Institute of Ethiopians Studies as well deals with researchers, coordinate a range of conferences and other related aspects. Over the past decades, the responsibility was handled by the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. The first two or three conferences were organized by Italians and British researchers. However, as of 1980’s the Institute turned out to be responsible for coordinating research on Ethiopian studies.
What are the requirements in terms of getting one’s work published?
Well, the research outputs are published in proceedings. The first issue was published in 1963. From then to now, we reached 48 volumes. They are extremely important elements for researchers. It was the first journal of the university. It is still an important journal to know more about Ethiopia. For the last sixty years, the responsibility was handled by the Institute of Ethiopian studies. The first two or three conferences were held outside the country. They were organized by Italian and British researchers. But from 1980’s on ward this institute grew to be responsible in coordinating research on Ethiopian studies.
In one conference we anticipate 300 to 400 papers to be presented. Of these, 150-200 papers are published. We as well have our own seminars and conferences. At this moment in time, we have forty and so institutions of higher learning across the country. We were coordinating a lot of activities. At the moment, they are over taken by institutions of higher learning. The Institute of Ethiopian studies is still interested in international conferences. Moreover, there is as well another international conference on Ethiopian art history. That is still alive. Two years ago, we had our tenth conferences in Mekelle. I hope we will carry out a number of activities in the eleventh one which is going to be held in Gondar.
Can we conclude that the museum is achieving the desired goal?
I would say, we are a little behind Ethiopian visitors. But at this point in time, we have lots Ethiopian visitors from different corners of the capital and its environs. Quite a lot of visitors come from different schools found in the left, right and left of the country over and over again. In the past, we were begging schools to come and see what we have in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. We were making an effort every so often in this regard.
But at this moment in time, students from every nook and cranny of the capital come to the Institute. Moreover, universities students’ from all over the country come to Ethiopian Studies with a view to gaining experience for the most part students of cultural heritages. In this fashion, we are harvesting the fruit of success.
With foreign visitors, we do not have any problem as tourist guides inform them to visit the museum. The Ethiopian studies is the best place to be visited. To the best of my knowledge, most people should visit the Institute of Ethiopian Studies on the weekends as recreation. They learn a lot from the museum. We have to appeal for grownups not for students.

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