(NB This was written in November 2012, much could have changed)
Addis Ababa Museum is up a long flight of steps and the gate and sign identifying the museum, which you can’t see, at the top are peeled and decades past their best. The neighbouring Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum is at street level and is new. I had the beginnings of what a few hours later became the worst ever case of diarrhea I have ever, ever endured. I was all for the modern, nice-toilets museum at ground level. However, like my friend, I probably wasn’t in the right mood to go into a museum about cruelty, terror and torture that occurred in my lifetime. With heavy stomach, we set off up the steps.
As the steps were quite steep and high, we were greeted with a decent view over Addis Ababa and Meskel Square (a place so vast you can almost picture the revolutions and gatherings). In part I was taking photos to rest my hungry and not fully functioning body and it was also fairly hot and we had just walked a fair way.
A bit of a pet hate of mine, but we got followed up the steps by a cheery man, clearly intent on being our guide, despite neither of us wanting one, in part because we wanted a quick visit as neither of us were feeling great, in fact feeling increasingly worse. He bounded to the top, chattering away (he was very sweet and I would have appreciated asking questions were it not that I really was starting to feel rather dreadful) and pointing things out across the city. We got to the top of the steps and I was surprised to be greeted by a derelict-looking but once grand wood and glass house set amidst a lovely lush garden with wonderful views. It really was a bit of an oasis of loveliness.
A lady stationed in a somewhat makeshift booth emerged with tickets; it was 10 birr (c35p) each. We took our tickets and our cheery guide bounded ahead telling us all manner of things that I am sorry to say I could barely absorb. I was starting to feel achy from my hips down and I was more concerned about whether there would be a toilet I could use. The building which houses the museum was, according to our guide, built as a gift by Emperor Menelik II for his security guard, Ras Biru Habte-Gabriel (other sources suggest Ras Biru was the Minister of War not a security guard, as our “guide” told us). Emperor Menelik II (17 August 1844 – 12 December 1913) is by all accounts a huge hero in Ethiopia, indeed Africa, in large part because of his role in securing victory over the Italians, gaining independence for Ethiopia and beginning to modernise the country. There are a lot of pictures of him around.
Once inside the museum, you are welcomed by two dreadful examples of wild cat taxidermy and it is apparent the museum does not contain a wealth of artefacts and it did not take a skilled curator to assemble the rooms. The front of the house (or it might be considered a side) is a wall of windows, which becomes, essentially, a long walkway conservatory. The doors to the rooms opened onto this conservatory and that was the only light in the rooms as all other windows had closed curtains and there was no electricity used to light the rooms. All pictures and artefacts were labelled in English on dried, curling bits of paper. There were plenty of pictures of Menelik II and his wife. Our guide was keen we took photographs of these handsome portraits. My friend pointed out that the light was bad so our cameras wouldn’t be able to take the photos. Fortunately, my friend was feeling a little more alert than me and she chatted to the guide. I, meanwhile, was beginning to feel truly awful and had got to the stage where my legs were aching and I couldn’t keep them still, so on the odd occasion we were admiring a picture of the emperor, I was unable to stand still because I felt so uncomfortable.
The museum has some interesting photos and insights into life in Addis Ababa before it was developed, though it is a shame there weren’t more. There are quite a few photos of eminent Addis Ababa men, which are of greater significance and interest to Ethiopians or people with a knowledge and specific interest in Ethiopian history. I am not meaning to be dismissive but I do not know enough out Ethiopian history to appreciate what these people did and why they are so revered.
There are display cases which contain random things. I am not entirely convinced the labels are always accurate. Once we had looked at the (I think) three rooms downstairs, we went upstairs. This was not without challenges as we had to step over one step as we would have fallen through it had we stepped on it. The next step didn’t seem too secure either, but we ascended unscathed. It is a building that will one day be unusable if nothing is done to restore it.
Upstairs, there are displays of handicrafts. Oh dear, I realise I don’t remember much about upstairs; I felt utterly foul by then. My friend whacked her mouth with her bottle of water, I got paranoid I was going to fall through the floorboards and the upstairs rooms sort of went by in a blur. We exited the museum via stairs along the pretty conservatory. I really did think a floorboard would break, especially walking up to the window to take a photo.
We then went to the ground floor and our guide explained a few things about pictures drawn on skins. Again, I would have appreciated this more if it weren’t for the fact I now knew I needed a toilet and bed very, very soon. He said he was 32 and when he was 12 had been imprisoned for a month and a half by the Communist-influenced Derg whose atrocities were displayed in part in the neighbouring Red Terror Museum. His dates don’t quite make sense and I kind of wanted to ask more but I’m not sure how you ask a stranger what atrocities they witnessed as a child during this reign of horrors.
I hope I do not sound dismissive of the museum but it was very surreal for me as I felt so awful. Of course it’s worth the entry fee and the 20 birr we paid the “guide”, though I know a lot of what he said needed to have been taken with a pinch of salt. It was, however, probably more interesting for its bizarreness than its contents (coming from someone with little knowledge of Ethiopian history, politics and culture) and it was most unexpected to see such a grand, albeit poised to fall down, residence. Had I been feeling normal, I would have liked to have wandered around the gardens. It is worth going if you are in the area, it does not require long to go round, especially as there are no crowds, no one else at all in fact, going round it. It all added to the unexpectedness of Addis Ababa.