The Case of Yimtubezina Museum
The monthly Architects ወርሃዊ Session was abuzz with excitement as people gathered to learn about the restoration of the Yimtubezina Museum and Cultural Center located inside Friendship Park #2. The building, which was built in 1892 E.C, had fallen into disrepair in recent years, but thanks to the hard work of a dedicated team of preservationists, it is now once again a shining example of early 20th-century architecture. The restoration project was not just about restoring the building to its former glory, however, it was also about preserving a piece of the community’s history. The event also coincided with the “Horsemanship in Ethiopia” exhibition, which detailed the history of horsemanship in the country and its different aspects. The event was an opportunity for attendees to learn about the historical residence’s journey through time, from its historic beginnings to its current status as a museum and cultural center. The event also highlighted the building’s continued value to the community, as a source of history, education, and inspiration.
Yimtubezina Museum and Cultural Center is a former residence of Mrs. Yimtubezinash Habte, which stands near the Grand Palace of the former Basha Wolde Chilot area, was constructed in 1892 E.C., by visiting Indian builders. The house was registered as an Ethiopian heritage site by the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage in 1982 E.C. and is currently one of the heritage houses included in Addis Ababa’s Master Plan. Abel Assefa, Director, and Chief Curator welcomed all the attendees and expressed his gratitude for architects showing interest in learning about the restoration process of the museum. He kicked off his presentation by describing who Mrs. Yimtubezinash was. Mrs. Yimtubezinash was a successful businesswoman and patriot during the reign of Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I. She was also a sister of the renowned patriot Fitawrari Shemeles Habte, who was the administrator of the Harar Garamuleta and surrounding area and who sacrificed his life protecting his country from Fascist Italy during the first Italian invasion (Maychew). Mrs. Yimtubezinash herself raised arms against the Italian invaders, who, after hearing of her participation, captured and brought her to Addis Ababa. There, she remained in prison until 1933 E.C., where she endured many hardships.
After sharing the owner’s incredible story, Abel explained three key reasons the house is considered a historical and architectural treasure.
- Hybrid Architectural style & foreign craftsmanship: The building was constructed using mud and wood by visiting Indian builders.
- Historic contribution to the flourishment of Addis Ababa: It was not truly after 1888 that Addis Ababa was a permanent capital of Ethiopia. After the battle of Adwa, Emperor Menelik gave lands to war heroes, embassies, and business people, which helped to expand the city. However, in 10 years, the city experienced a shortage of wood and other building supplies. This led the emperor to consider shifting the capital to Addisalem. However, ambassadors and respected business owners such as Mrs. Yimtubezinash contested this move and later won. Their establishment of houses and other businesses in Addis Ababa helped to ensure that the city remained the capital of Ethiopia.
- Social Value: In a patriarchal society, it was not common for women to own large lands or build houses; it was a great achievement for Mrs. Yimtubezinash to build this house as a successful businesswoman.
Despite its significance, the heritage building has endured multiple challenges, among which two are the most notable. The Derg regime’s law to confiscate extra landholdings and the 2007/08 E.C. 4kilo redevelopment initiative posed two threats to the preservation of the heritage piece. In the first case, the Derg transferred ownership of any associated buildings and assets to Kebele, which harmed the preservation of the heritage piece. In the second case, the redevelopment had plans to clear most slums in the area and construct a new parliament where the current Friendship Park #2 resides. However, the building’s previous recognitions and its heritage status in the master plan helped to save it from being erased. Then, two years later, there was a political landscape change that saw the previous plans for a new parliament being dropped in favor of a public park. This was clearly a better fate for the heritage building, but it was sure to bring another dimension to the conservation efforts. The new development amidst such a historic landscape brought a conflict of interest that had to be solved between the government, the client (the family of Yimtubezinash), and the Authority for Research & Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH).
The stakeholders involved in the development of the new park had different opinions on how the heritage building should be integrated into the new park. However, they all agreed that the building needed to be preserved. The building was shifting from a private residence to a component in a public park, which meant that it had to meet certain standards. One of these standards was that the building had to be painted white, as this would give it a more dominant look and make it more visible to visitors. The owner of the building was interested in adaptive reuse, meaning that they wanted to convert the building into a museum. In line with this, the ARCCH demanded that any restoration be done in a way that would maintain the historical authenticity of the original house. After a series of talks and discussions that lasted almost a year, the restoration of the house began. The restoration team made some design adjustments to integrate the house into its new context without altering its identity. The restoration of the house included reconstructing the upper portion, which was unsteady due to structural instability. The house did not have electricity, so a new system had to be incorporated. It was critical to design the new system in close relation to the architectural characteristics of the original building. As a result, the new spotlights and other apparatus were derived from the building itself and then modified for its use as a museum. The restoration work created many jobs, and Abel Assefa mentioned that one of the important things about such restoration works is their ability to uncover local skills and give them contemporary relevance.
After the restoration work was completed, the building needed to have its collection to operate as a museum. Luckily, the house had a good amount of existing archives. The family of Mrs. Yimtubezinash had a great dedication to preserving and maintaining any valuable belongings for five consecutive generations, which helped increase the number of collections to 700. The restoration team also added a café to the museum, not only to generate revenue for the establishment but also to provide park visitors with a chance to enjoy a meal or a cup of coffee in the warmth of history. The museum has now been recognized by the Ethiopian National Museum and “strives to work in presenting and creating platforms and forums for cultural exchanges”.
Abel concluded his presentation with a remark, reminding the audience that the “behind-the-scenes” work of restoration is often just as important as the visible work. He cited the negotiations, ownership battles, and other challenges that the project faced as evidence of this. He then challenged the audience, especially architects, to think critically about these “invisible” aspects of restoration and to ensure that they are given the attention they deserve.
Participant #1: How much investment did the restoration require?
Abel: The estimated amount is five up to seven million birr, including the restoration and museum costs.
Participant #2: What was the hardest negotiation term? Can you clarify the current ownership status and if there are any visit limits because of the structural stability of the museum?
Abel: I wouldn’t say it was the hardest part, but in principle, any collection should be stored outside of the museum. We thought of constructing a small structure to hold these collections, but the guidelines for the new park were very strict and did not allow such additions. I think it would have created an interesting space. Regarding ownership, it is in the hands of the current generation of Mrs. Yimtubezinash’s family, with a recognized property map. We have also set the capacity of 200 people per day for safety reasons. You might have noticed that the restoration only replaced the wood on the balcony and the basic wood structure remains intact. We have also closed off the upper portion of the museum to the public to avoid any long-term structural impacts until we are certain.
Participant #3: Can you explain the concept of “adaptive reuse”?
Abel: It is all about “society dynamic”. Urban residents, especially, live in a wake of a changing world that is in a constant state of flux. So the challenge is how to keep track of and adapt the building to a contemporary setting while preserving its historic roots. It’s not just about preserving the building for its own sake. It’s about making sure that it remains relevant to the people who use it. That’s why we’ve made sure to incorporate some modern elements into the restoration, such as the café and the new lighting. We want the building to be a place where people can come to learn about the past, but also to connect with the present.
Participant #4: What was the overall public reception of the museum after it opened?
Abel: The opening of the museum was a learning opportunity for us. We learned about the importance of accessibility for people with disabilities, and we also learned about other issues that may not have been given central focus in the restoration process. We also received many apositive reviews, as well as some honest critiques, which gave us valuable insights into how we can improve the space and overall experience.
Participant #5: Could you share with us any tough moments in this whole process and how many of the 135 registered heritages in 1982 E.C. have survived?
Abel: The most difficult moment came in 2007/08 E.C. when most of 4Kilo was demolished and only a few structures such as this one remained. One day, a team of 20 people came to the property and began measuring it for demolition. At that moment, Ato Berhanu, a member of Mrs. Yimtubezinash’s fifth generation, and others notified local radio stations that the resulting public outcry was enough to stop the demolition that day. Regarding the remaining heritage buildings, one problem we have in Addis Ababa heritage conservation is the lack of a consistent definition of a heritage building. Subsequent heritage registrations after 1982 E.C. have revealed widely varying reporting, making it difficult to know which buildings have survived. To my knowledge, nearly 10 buildings have been demolished.
The restoration of the Yimtubezina Museum is a shining example of what can be achieved when people come together with a shared vision. The project was a complex one, but it was ultimately successful thanks to the dedication and hard work of the restoration team and the support of the stakeholders involved. The museum is now a valuable resource for the community, and it is a testament to the power of restoration to breathe new life into old buildings. It is also a reminder that heritage buildings are not just inanimate objects, but are living parts of our culture and history. The 45th Architects Monthly Session came to a close with a tour of the newly restored museum and an exhibition on the history of horsemanship in Ethiopia. Until the next session, take care and be sure to visit this historical landmark!