Abdullahi Ali Sherif is the founder of Sherif Private Museum, the first private museum in Ethiopia and a holder of an honorary Doctorate from Haramaya University for his contribution on the development and conservation of cultural heritages. Abudullahi Sharif, a father of five who considers the museum his sixth child. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Haramaya University on March 13, 2021 and at age 70, he wants to do more to preserve indigenous heritage. Addis Standard’s Etenesh Abera visited his museum on March 21, 2021 and sat down with him for an interview to discuss the process of establishing the first private museum, culture and heritage and more.
Addis Standard: Thanks for sitting with us, can we first give a brief introduction for those who follow your work and can you tell us more about your journey to establish the first private museum in the country?
Abdullahi Ali: I was born and raised here in Harar. During my highschool years, I had unanswered questions that led me on search for my identity and culture. Being a Harari, I started asking our elders about our culture and heritage, the answer I got was “We don’t have anything,” sank me into a crisis of identity. To my luck 25 years later, there was this Harari traditional Music band named Hayewan Mugad and they wanted to celebrate their 25 years anniversary and I started working on the preparation of this event collecting audios and other mediums. During preparation elders started to bring me mediums and artifacts that recorded our traditional and religious heritages. I was upset because years back when I was on the journey to find out about our history, I asked them why they refused back years to give me these materials and the replyvis was more upsetting, they said, “We feared for our lives because during that era all people had to sing of one culture, one country and one religion.”
We released some 125 songs in the Harari language along with a biography of the band. After that I continued to collect the Harari artifacts from our elders and different individuals in the community.
AS: How would you describe the process of collecting the artifacts ?
Abdullahi: Hard but as I told you earlier once I started collecting artifacts, the Harari community will bring to me most of them for free and to your knowledge my collection is not complete as I am still in the process of collecting them. I do have collections of pre Menelik era coins, manuscripts, religious books, different cultural clothes medals and so on.
Before I moved to this house which belonged to Teferi Mekonnen or as he is widely known Haile Selassie I, I used my own small family room as a museum for more than 17 years. Using my own house as a base for my museum caused a lot of stress to my family and had its mental and physical toll on us. I moved to this house. July 26,2007 right before the start of the new Ethiopian millenia. I have been renovating it for 13 years and it still needs a lot of renovation. In this humble setting, I have five exhibition rooms that display 13,000 artifacts. This number is an improvement to the 6,000 artifacts I had when I started.
“in our museums we do not only work on preserving only Harari artifacts and present Harari culture but we are also working to preserve and help other culturally specific museums…”
I also have four operational workshops. I operate a workshop as a center for digitizing manuscripts, I operate a second as a center for digitizing audio, I operate a third workshop as bookbinding center, in which I am proud to say that we have already bonded more than a thousand books and operate my last workshop as a center for renovating the museum, and preserving artifacts. If I may add that here in our museums we do not only work on preserving only Harari artifacts and present Harari culture but we are also working to preserve and help other culturally specific museums, for example out of the 1,500 manuscripts we digitized so far only 1,000 belong to our museum and represent Harari culture. We always prepare two copies of the digitized manuscripts and we send one copy of each manuscript to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, a non-profit organization located at and sponsored by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Out of the artifacts I possess, only 35% have been purchased while the remaining were collected from the Harari community mostly by donation. We are only displaying 20 % of the artifacts collected due shortage of display rooms. We store the remaining 80 % in warehouses and we make them accessible upon request by researchers.
I have in my possession now more than 1300 manuscripts written in Arabic, Harari and Afan Oromo and more than 2000 religious and historical books. I also have a collection of cultural clothes of different ethinc groups, a collection of medals, ancient coins, postal stamps, photographs, in short I have in my possession artifacts from 17 categories.
AS: Did you exhibit your collections in places other than this museum?
Abdullahi: Yes I toured almost all the Ethiopian majors cities and towns and if I am not mistaken the total is more than 60 cities and towns. Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Morocco are some countries where I have exhibited my collection. I have received a lot of certificates and awards for these exhibitions.
” To receive this recognition for your hard work, the feeling was more than what I can describe. I have to credit my wife Sa’ada Tawfiq for her 17 years of patience as all these artifacts were filling our living room.”
AS: Describe your feelings when Haramaya University made the decision to award you with an honorary doctorate?
Abdullahi: To receive this recognition for your hard work, the feeling was more than what I can describe. I have to credit my wife Sa’ada Tawfiq for her 17 years of patience as all these artifacts were filling our living room. I have to add that this honorary doctorate for me isn’t about mere recognition, it also puts the heavy responsibility of finishing the job on me. Many of the artifacts are yet to be registered and catalogued, this is a huge load. This recognition will be a motivating force to finish organizing the museum and bring it to national standard, it is also an eye opener for both regional and federal governments as well as the wider community to give due attention to the museum.
AS: What is your main source of support?
Abdullahi: I would have to say mainly the Ethiopian people who helped me in many ways financially and otherwise but I would have to add that The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office, the United States embassy, Russian Embassy and United Kingdom embassy and Ethiopian-Saudi businessman Mohammed Al-Amoudi lend me hand in maintaining this museum.
AS: What are the biggest challenges you face and can you tell us about your concerns for the future and what do you want the public to know?
Abdullahi: To be honest I am worried that the museum will shut down after I pass away. My children know the ins and outs of this profession and the methods of preserving artifacts but my worry is that financial constraints would prevent them from continuing with this dream of mine. I have been getting some support for the museum from the government, and that support has to continue. Another challenge would be lack of promotion, the eastern part of the country is merely promoted for international tourists and that can be solved if responsible governmental bodies promoted it. Because Harar is a tourist destination and the museum could prove to be a great source of employment and income for the community if supported.
I have to say this to my fellow Ethiopians; we have to protect our unique identities, preserve our unique cultures and our artifacts for the coming generations to see.
I have to say this to my fellow Ethiopians; we have to protect our unique identities, preserve our unique cultures and our artifacts for the coming generations to see. If you own an artifact in no matter how small you think it is, donate it yourself or via someone you trust to museums, do not keep them out of selfishness or sell them to tourists, because if you do you leave the next generation fighting to find things that connect them to their identities, cultures and history. AS