Theory Teacher's Blog

Finfinne Diaries 2: Ethiopia’s Museums, Public Memory, and Us

As I mentioned a few days ago in my blog post [here] about my itinerary in Ethiopia, I visited quite a few museums: the National Museum, Ethnological Museum, Addis Ababa Museum, Red Terror Museum, Jimma Museum, Harar Museum, and Arthur Rimbaud Museum as well as a traditional Harari home and the Asni art gallery. That’s a lot of museums, and unfortunately I didn’t take very good notes. Nevertheless, as I moved from one museum to another (sometimes three in one day), I began to notice some key differences between them, and I began to consider a couple of very old questions: what are museums for and how ought they be organized? And I say they are old questions because quite a few scholars have published books attempting answers… such as this, this, and this… though I must admit that I have not read any of them.

But I did notice a few things. I’ll start with the National Museum and the Ethnological Museum, since they are almost right next to each other, and, significantly, they tell very different stories about Ethiopia. The National Museum has three floors; the first floor focuses on prehistoric times and includes animal skeletons and the famous skeleton of the oldest human, nicknamed “Lucy” by Americans and “Dinkenesh” by Ethiopians (which is Amharic for “wonderful”); half of the second floor is devoted to ancient archaeological relics such as old tools and ornaments, and the other half is devoted to symbols of the Ethiopian empire of the 19th century, mainly the paraphernalia of its emperors; the third floor focuses on modern Ethiopia, especially the communist paintings of the 1970s celebrating peasant labor and the postsocialist, postmodern artwork of the 1990s mourning the brutalities of the communist regime and the fragmented national consciousness. Thus, as one moves from the first floor to the third floor, one moves forward in time, and the organization of material suggests a patriotic story of national unity and progress, from the prehistoric Lucy to the symbols of empire to postmodernist painting. And of course, by doing so, it projects Ethiopia’s contemporary political boundaries back in time, making the nation seem older and more continuous than it ever really was. There is nothing unique about Ethiopia’s national museum, as this is the project of most national museums all around the world.

In contrast, the Ethnological museum is more multicultural, and thus reflects the direction of scholarship at Addis Ababa University since the mid-1990s (as well as the direction of scholarship in the United States and Europe), attending to different regions and cultures. The museum includes artifacts that illustrate the different rituals, musical instruments, tools, and clothing of the various ethnic groups. (Ethiopia has over 70 different ethnic groups, so for the sake of simplicity and space the museum had to combine many of them.) But there are two organizing principles at work in this museum — not only the ethnic one, but also the narrative of a human being from birth to death. As one walks through the museum, one walks through a universal human narrative of development from childhood, to marriage, to basic village economics, to religious ceremony, to war, etc. Thus, the museum shows both difference and sameness — cultural differences are ordered according to universal sense of what it means to be human…. Except that all of the artifacts are primitive, and none of them modern. The museum seems to suggest that beneath all the cultural differences is universal humanity, but I couldn’t help but think that its essentialist sense of human-ness was actually quite alien to the experience of anyone growing up in the early 21st century.

To analyze these two museums, one might say that the National Museum is ideologically nationalist and modernist and that the Ethnological Museum is multiculturalist. But thinking critically, I began to wonder why there couldn’t be a museum that was both multicultural and modern. There seems to be something rather wrong about both museums, one asserting a nationalism that is blind to cultural difference and the other asserting an essentialist humanism that is blind to history. Instead, can we imagine a museum that would show how cultures are changed by historical forces that aren’t always progressive and might involve disparities in relations of power?

A completely different museum, the Jimma Museum, focused entirely on the stuff that was owned by Jimma’s last king, Abba Jiffar II, who ruled from 1878 to 1932. This would seem to be the most unsophisticated museum of the bunch, as its goal seemed to be nothing more than to celebrate a ruler. Moreover, it seemed to celebrate him without admitting some uncomfortable truths, such as the fact that he acquired much of his wealth from the slave trade. However, in another sense, because it focuses on the stuff owned by Jimma’s most important person, it actually does do exactly what the National and Ethnological museums do not do — it simultaneously indicates the plurality of cultures AND historical change. Jimma was an important peripheral city for a complex economic network that extended from Europe to India. What one experiences as one walks through the museum and its cases full of artifacts from all over the world is a rather uncanny sense of cultural hybridity. The museum is in a sense a testimony to one king’s struggle to survive during the height of European imperialism and the rapid growth of the modern capitalist world system.

Now, a funny thing happened in Harar’s museum, which is basically one large room, whose walls show the history of the city and whose center has tables full of ethnological artifacts. First, the tour guide took me around the walls of the room, teaching me about Harar’s history, and then we looked at the tables in the center of the room. In a sense, this museum combines the ethnological with the historical, but the overall effect is a little strange. Each table in the center is devoted to a different ethnic group (Oromo, Gurage, Somali, and Harari), thus celebrating Harar’s multicultural past and the possibility of peaceful coexistence. But I noticed two ironies. First, most of the artifacts on the different tables were pretty much the same, which suggests to me that a thousand years of intermixture makes the cultural differences between the ethnic groups almost negligible; it was difficult to understand why separate tables were necessary and why materials were not organized in a different way. (I wondered whether anyone would notice if I switched some of the artifacts.) Second, I observed that there was no table for Amhara or Tigray artifacts. I asked why that was, and the guide simply shrugged. (Now, for those of you who don’t know Ethiopian history, it was the Orthodox Christian Amhara and Tigray kings who, in the late 19th century, conquered the territory now known as Ethiopia and created the modern state with European technological support, i.e., guns.) So, the joke that I then made to the museum tour guide — which elicited a nervous laugh — was that the table of Amhara cultural artifacts was not in the center of the room because it was part of the “history” wall. And then I pointed to a section of the wall that had a rack of modern rifles and machine guns from one of the early 20th-century battles, and I joked, “oh, there’s the table of Amhara and Tigray cultural artifacts.” My snide comment was meant to draw attention to the strange dichotomy suggested by the museum’s organization that ethnic culture (Oromo, Somali, Harari, Gurage) is somehow not historical in contrast to the politically dominate culture (Amhara and Tigray) which is able to be a historical culture (i.e., a modern culture) only by means of its acquisition of more technologically advanced weapons. (Indeed, the Oromo peasants’ word for their Amhara “landlord” is “gun-holder.”)

How we remember the past has important implications for the future of how we organize our lives together. Since the 1990s, Ethiopia has reorganized its state in a way that now recognizes its many ethnic groups in the wake of two regimes (Haile Selassie’s empire from 1916 to 1974 and Mengisu’s Derg from 1974 to 1991) that actively and often violently sought to repress the cultural achievements of those ethnic groups. Arguably, the current regime under Meles is just as repressive as the previous two, but there is a difference. Unlike the previous two regimes, it seems to me that the current regime allows for cultural differences and cultural achievements to be expressed, but of course it makes this allowance so long as no real political or economic consequences follow from that expression. After all, there are now Oromo cultural centers everywhere in Ethiopia, elementary schools now teach in the ethnic language of each region, some universities now have an Oromo folklore department, and there is an Oromia Bank and the “Finfinne Branch” of the National Bank… but the masses of people in Ethiopia (whatever their ethnicity or culture may be) seem to have little say in matters such as environmental regulations, the organization of land, foreign policy, etc. 

In my opinion, the possibility for real alternatives remains marginalized or concealed from view in the museums that I visited. For instance, the Addis Ababa Museum carefully documents the development of the city from a small Oromo town to a military camp to a modern city, but it includes very little about the culture of the local people before the Abyssinian emperor Menelik II moved his military camp there at the end of the 19th century, and it includes hardly a mention of King Iyasu, who ruled from 1913 to 1916. Most of the Ethiopians whom I met characterize Iyasu as an alcoholic womanizer or as a closet Muslim, but in fact he tried to reorganize an Ethiopian state that would be both multicultural and opposed to European imperialism, and he was only 21 years old when he was deposed. More importantly, he was deposed by a politically powerful Orthodox Christian elite who preferred to ally itself with Europe’s imperial desire to exploit labor and resources and oppress the other ethnic groups. The Addis Ababa Museum noticeably puts his portrait in the shadows behind other artifacts as if in embarrassment, and most of the Ethiopians I talked to incorrectly repeat the propaganda, believing that Lij Iyasu’s overthrow was a result of his personal ethics rather than his political decisions. In other words, the average person on the street in Ethiopia seems to have no public memory of Iyasu’ idealistic, egalitarian, anti-colonial agenda and no sense of why European governments would support the coup d’etat that put Ras Tefari in power.

And all of this has important implications for Ethiopia’s newest museum that opened just a few months ago devoted to remembering the Red Terror. The “Red Terror” is the name for when Mengistu’s Derg regime went on a brutal witch hunt for anyone opposed to his administration. Thousands were tortured and murdered. Next to the museum’s front door is a placard with the slogan, “Never Ever Again.”  The museum begins by documenting events shortly before the Revolution with magazines and leaflets containing revolutionary arguments against Haile Selassie’s oppressive monarchy. Such documents attest to the revolution’s admirable revolutionary goals, but the museum shows how the revolution soon devolved into an oppressive, terrorist regime. The museum includes more than 700 photographs of the victims, including women and children; it includes the technologies of torture, a map of the secret detention centers, coffins full of unknown bodies, pits full of bones, and some works of art made by survivors; and it even includes a duplicating machine that was destroyed by Mengistu’s regime because it would have published arguments against him. The Red Terror museum reminded me of the Hiroshima museum in Japan and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

I think such museums are very important, but I do have a concern about them that is more than merely theoretical. As a site of public memory, the Red Terror Museum seeks to document an act of evil with the explicit goal that Ethiopia never does it again. However, how different was Mengistu’s regime from the regimes before and after it? After all, emperor Haile Selassie ordered jet fighter planes to drop bombs on his own people in the 1960s, a fact that I never saw mentioned in any of Ethiopia’s museums. And some human rights organizations claim that the current Prime Minister Meles has arrested, tortured, and murdered political opponents. And was Mengistu simply evil? To say so doesn’t really explain the complexity of the situation, and it certainly doesn’t explain why so many people in Ethiopia would have supported Mengistu at the time. My concern here is that by demonizing one person, such a representation ignores important truths and creates an alibi — an alibi that allows Ethiopians (and also Americans and Europeans) to imagine that they themselves never supported the evil Mengistu and wouldn’t support such a man today… even though they did… and they do… and we do. 

At the end of my presentation on the Harlem Renaissance at Addis Ababa University, the students and I discussed the role of art, literature, and representation. I told them that all of recent novels published in the United States about Ethiopia focus on the Red Terror and that, although I certainly recognize the importance of that subject, it bothered me that American literature couldn’t think of anything else to say about Ethiopia. They told me that, likewise, much of Ethiopia’s own recent literature did the same  thing — and that it often did so by simply representing Mengistu as a monster. The students and I agreed that art ought to do something better if it is to help us (the public) work through the paradoxes and problems we face in the globalized capitalist world in which we live. In many ways, the organization of a museum is like a work of art as it seeks to encourage people to reflect on their identity and the atrocities of their history so that the phrase “never ever again” is not merely an empty slogan.


July 2, 2010 - Posted by | Oromia, teaching

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