Museums are not usually very high on the list of priorities for those that travel to sub-Saharan Africa. Safaris, hiking and beaches are by far the biggest attractions. But if there’s one museum that warrants breaking the usual African travel itinerary mold, it would be the Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I have probably visited the Ethnological Museum six or seven times in the past year and a quick tour around the building will show you why.
The Ethnological Museum is housed in the former palace of Haile Selassie, which is now on the grounds of Addis Ababa University. The building is also home to a library and the offices of university administration. Upon entering, visitors are provided a history of the university, which is accompanied by contemporary photographs.
After paying the 100 birr entrance fee (steep for Ethiopia but a bargain for a good museum) and passing a stuffed predator, the first exhibition starts. Visitors are taken through the life cycles of various peoples and tribes of Ethiopia, with explanations of childhood games, rites of passage, marriage ceremonies and living arrangements. Below are an example of the informative posters and a tombstone.
Following the life cycle portion of the museum, a glass case displays wooden pillows and a variety of drinking vessels for the traditional Ethiopian beverages like tella. The hallways lead past historical examples of Ethiopian currency to the restored bedrooms and bathrooms of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menen. Including the furnishings, visitors can see Haile Selassie’s uniform and an array of gifts given to the Emperor by other foreign heads of state. In the anteroom, philatelists will be pleased by the extensive collection of Ethiopian stamps.
A walk upstairs yields a different set of culturally important pieces. Several historical paintings line two of the walls. The first one below depicts the monumental victory of the Ethiopians against Italian armed forces at Adwa in 1896. This military feat is commemorated annually in March and Ethiopians are very proud of the fact that they were never colonized in the Scramble for Africa.
Musical instruments from the various regions and epochs line a labyrinthine room behind the paintings, with krars, kissars and massenkos featuring heavily. Traditional and centuries-old crosses from northern Ethiopia are also displayed on this floor (lighting too poor to even attempt a photo). My favorite part of the entire museum is a reproduction of photographs that closes out the visit. Two Dutch diplomats traveled to Ethiopia in 1930 to attend the coronation of Haile Selassie. They recorded their voyage, the festivities and their subsequent travels into the Ethiopian wild beautifully through an extensive series of photographs. The pictures are accompanied by descriptions and interesting biographies of the diplomats.
Upon stepping out of the museum, a strange monument lies directly ahead. A set of more than a dozen steps curls skyward without a surrounding structure. This was constructed during the Italian occupation of 1936-41, with each step representing a year of fascist rule in Italy. Once home rule was restored, the Ethiopians did not bother to tear down the stairs; instead, they topped the stairs with the unquestionably Ethiopian Lion of Judah. A nice touch and fitting end to the Ethnological Museum experience.
I’m linking up with #SundayTraveler this week – head over to my friend Adelina’s blog to read her post on The Best of Vancouver in 8 Hours.