Lonely Planet review
Set within Haile Selassie’s former palace and surrounded by the beautiful gardens and fountains of Addis Ababa University’s main campus is the enthralling Ethnological Museum. Even if you’re not normally a museum fan, this one is worth a bit of your time – it’s easily one of the finest museums in Africa.
The show starts before you even get inside: look for the intriguing set of stairs spiralling precariously skyward near the palace’s main entrance. Each step was placed by the Italians as a symbol of Fascist domination, one for every year Mussolini held power (starting from his march to Rome in 1922). A small Lion of Judah (the symbol of Ethiopian monarchy) sits victoriously atop the final step, like a jubilant punctuation mark at the end of a painfully long sentence.
Within the entrance hall you’ll find a small exhibition dedicated to the history of the palace, and the doorway to the Institute of Language Studies library.
This contemporary museum truly comes into its own on the 1st floor, where superb artefacts and handicrafts from Ethiopia’s peoples are distinctively displayed. Instead of following the typical static and geographical layout that most museums fall into, these displays are based upon the life cycle. First comes Childhood, with birth, games, rites of passage and traditional tales. We particularly enjoyed the ‘Yem Tale’, a story of selfishness, dead leopards and sore tails! Adulthood probes into beliefs, nomadism, traditional medicine, war, pilgrimages, hunting, body culture and handicrafts. The last topic is Death and Beyond, with burial structures, stelae and tombs. The exhibition gives a great insight into Ethiopia’s many rich cultures.
Other rooms on this floor show the preserved bedroom, bathroom and exorbitant changing room of Emperor Haile Selassie, complete with a bullet hole in his mirror courtesy of the 1960 coup d’état.
The 2nd floor plays home to two drastically different, but equally delightful displays. The vibrant hall focuses on religious art, with an exceptional series of diptychs, triptychs, icons, crosses and magic scrolls. Magic scrolls, like the Roman lead scrolls, were used to cast curses on people or to appeal to the gods for divine assistance. The collection of icons is the largest and most representative in the world. Senses of another sort are indulged in the small cavelike corridor that sits next to the hall. Inside, traditional music gently fills the air and the black surrounds leave you nothing to look at besides the instruments – brilliant.
It’s well worth coming to this museum twice; once at the start of your journey through Ethiopia and once at the end when you’ll be able to put everything into context.
After you’ve lapped up the treasures in the museum, stop by the double-decker London bus next to the university entrance gates. Brought to Addis by Haile Selassie it’s now a cool bar and packed with students.