Q&A with Leslie Luebbers 

Director of the Art Museum at the University of Memphis

After discovering that a pre-19th-century manuscript has significant historical value to its home country of Ethiopia, the Art Museum at the University of Memphis (AMUM) has parted with one if its holdings. 

At more than 300 years old, the manuscript was originally thought to have been of Christian origin, but visiting scholars who were working at the museum last year confirmed the cultural history of the book and suggested that it be returned to its home country. Last week, Dr. Kindeneh Endeg Mihretie, a repatriation expert from Ethiopia, traveled to Memphis to accept the manuscript.

We sat down with Leslie Luebbers, director of AMUM, to learn more about the significance of the manuscript and its journey to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University.

Flyer: How did a manuscript from Ethiopia wind up at the University of Memphis?

Leslie Luebbers: The book was purchased by one of our anonymous benefactors who has traveled extensively in Africa. Sometime in the 1970s, she bought it at a street market. A graduate student who just happened to be Ethiopian was working in the museum around the time the book came into our collection, and an Africanist was working at the museum as well.

They realized the book was unique. It is a collection of smaller manuscripts collected over centuries, bound together by hand by one family. In communicating with experts in Ethiopia, we realized that somehow the book had gotten into the market when it shouldn't have.

What information is in the manuscript?

It's a lot of manuscripts housed in one book. Some are religious manuscripts. Some of them are historical accounts about different villages. There is some discussion of Ethiopian scribes. Because wealthy families had to have scribes to build libraries, they would go to a neighbor or some other place and copy these things, and there is some discussion of that process.

It's in a very old dialect, one that there are no modern speakers of. You have to study to figure out what it is, like with hieroglyphs. Our graduate assistant had enough experience to be able to read parts of it. The woman who bought it thought it was a Bible. The graduate assistant and the Africanist were looking at the book and were like, "Whoa wait a minute. This isn't what you thought it was." It's been a really interesting exercise in discovering the politics of sending something back to its native land, which isn't as simple as you might imagine.

Has the museum had to deal with art repatriation before?

It's a unique experience in the 20-something years that I've been here. This museum didn't begin as a museum. It began as a gallery. We didn't have collections. Things were shown, and then they moved on. All of the antiquities in the museum came into the university over the past 30 years. Among the antiquities here, we have very good records on them, or they were collected by travelers as souvenirs.

The level of professionalism in museums has changed radically in the past 40 years. We live in an international world now, and there's a lot more discussion about where things belong and where they are best placed. We don't have a huge collection, so it's unlikely that we have some precious oddity stuck some place. And if we do, we'll just go through this fun process again.

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