Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Kristen WINDMULLER-LUNA, Princeton University Art Museum

Ethiopian artists have created many diverse artistic styles across time and place. Yet in the museum, the word “Ethiopia” is frequently used as shorthand for only tradition-based Christian art. This creates a false impression of a singular Ethiopian artistic style, which in turn informs visitors’ understanding of what Ethiopian arts are. This practice also diverges from current academic and museological trends in African art history, which seek greater specificity in the classification of art (see for example the 2016-17 tri-partite paper series “Shattering Single Stories in the Labeling and Presentation of Historical Arts of Africa”). For historic reasons, Ethiopia is often excluded from these discussions. Equally, recent art historical efforts to name masterhands or artistic styles within Ethiopian Christian art are generally not reflected in museum practice, therefore having little effect on correcting ideas about stylistic singularity. This paper addresses the issue of classification and labeling of Ethiopian arts in the museum context with special attention to discussions of style. Drawing from both museological texts and from its author’s experience as a curator-scholar, it demonstrates current practices and challenges faced by museums as they classify and present Ethiopian arts. Considering both internal organizational systems (databases) and their public-facing counterparts (gallery labels, websites, and publications), it presents key case studies drawn from the author’s first-of-its-kind survey of global institutions that collect and exhibit Ethiopian art. It argues that museums fail to represent the diversity of Ethiopian arts because of a combination of historical, academic, and organizational factors. By closely examining present-day museum practices, this project considers the gap between academic and museum practices in Ethiopian studies, and the greater public impact of this disconnect. Finally, it suggests some ways in which museums may achieve greater specificity in their labeling practice.