Ethiopia at the Crossroads

In the first episode of Free Admissions, we chat with the exhibition’s curator Christine Sciaccia about Ethiopia at the Crossroads, the first major art exhibition in America to examine an array of Ethiopian cultural and artistic traditions from their origins to the present day. Conservation Scientist Annette Ortiz introduces us to her unique officemates (aka, her go-to conservation equipment)

Episode Segments

Overview of Ethiopia at the Crossroads
Interview with Christine Sciacca, Curator of European Art, 300–1400 CE
Equipment in the Conservation Science Lab with Annette Ortiz, Conservation Scientist

Karena Ingram: Welcome to the Walters Art Museum podcast, where we bridge the gap between art and people of every background to inspire creativity, curiosity, and connection. I’m your host, Karena Ingram, and in today’s episode, we’ll explore the rich and ancient cultural heritage of Ethiopia highlighted in our exhibition, Ethiopia at the Crossroads

We’ll also chat with Christine Sciacca, curator of Ethiopia at the Crossroads, about her journey to the country to bring the exhibition to life. Then, our conservation scientist, Annette Ortiz, will introduce us to the special tools she uses in our science lab. Stick around, there’s more art in connection to come.

Seated in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is an intersection of diverse cultures, religions, and climates.

A nexus of trade and travel, throughout its history, Ethiopia is the only African nation that was never colonized, and it is the second nation to adopt Christianity, predating even the religion’s adoption by the Roman Empire in the 3rd century.

This December, the Walters Art Museum presents a major exhibition of Ethiopian art and history in Ethiopia at the Crossroads

The exhibition examines Ethiopian art as representative of the nation’s history and demonstrates its enormous cultural significance by exploring the themes of cross-cultural exchange, and the human role in creation and movement of art objects within the African continent, across the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and crossing the Indian Ocean.

This major exhibition is the first in America to examine Ethiopian art in a global context and spans over 1,750 years of history. Featuring 225 objects drawn from the Walters’ world-renowned collection of Ethiopian art, and augmented with loans from other American, European, and Ethiopian lenders, the exhibition immerses visitors in the rich and ancient cultural heritage of Ethiopia in a combined chronological and thematic format to encourage visitors’ understanding of pivotal cultural moments in Ethiopian history.

Visitors will see church wall paintings, Christian icons, metalwork crosses of various scales, healing scrolls, coins, colorful Islamic basketry, illuminated manuscripts, and ancient stone and 20th-century wood sculptures. The exhibition also showcases studies by Walters conservators and conservation scientists revealing new findings on the techniques and materials of Ethiopian craftsmen.

Works by Ethiopian diaspora artists are integrated throughout the space and juxtaposed with historic art to invite visitors to draw connections between the historic works and the living traditions of artists today. Works by Aïda Muluneh, Wosene Worke Kosrof, and Elias Sime will respond to and reflect upon traditional Ethiopian art and help visitors to comprehend and connect with the multiplicity of cultures and histories presented.

Additionally, video screens showing a modern-day religious celebration and listening stations with recordings of artists and community members are incorporated throughout the galleries to present visitors with a greater understanding of Ethiopian culture. Shaped and informed by work done during the period of the NEH Exhibition Planning Grant, Christine Sciacca, Curator of European Art, 300-1400 CE, and Karen French, Head of Painting Conservation, traveled to Ethiopia to experience firsthand the country’s long history from Lucy (or Australopithecus afarensis, if we’re being technical), to the mythic Queen of Sheba, from the Aksumite kings to the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, as well as present day religious ceremonies, music, dance, and contemporary art. Ethiopia at the Crossroads is curated by Christine Sciacca, Curator of European Art 300-1400 CE at the Walters Art Museum.

The exhibition opens at the Walters on December 3rd, 2023, and is on view through March 3rd, 2024. The exhibition will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum April 13th through July 7th, 2024, and to the Toledo Museum of Art, August 17th through November 10th, 2024. This exhibition is co-organized by the Walters Art Museum, Peabody Essex Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art.

We’ve given you a broad overview of what to expect in our exhibition of Ethiopian art, and now I’m excited to speak with Christine Sciacca, the Walters Curator of European Art 300-1400 CE and the driving force behind Ethiopia at the Crossroads Christine, welcome to the podcast.

Christine Sciacca: Thank you, Karena. I’m really glad to be here.

Karena Ingram: I’m glad to have you, and I’m excited to dig more into Ethiopia at the Crossroads, but to start, if you could just give our listeners a brief overview of how long you’ve been at the Walters and your area of focus.

Christine Sciacca: So, I’ve been at the Walters for six and a half years, and I have a very long title, as you heard from Karena. But I’m just the curator of medieval objects at the Walters, but for us, that means art from Europe, but also from places like Ethiopia, Russia, Byzantium, and so forth.

Karena Ingram: Wonderful! And because Ethiopia does fall under that, you know, umbrella of (laughter) umbrella of a title, could you kind of talk about the concept of Ethiopia at the Crossroads, how it came to be, and expand a bit on your process of curating this exhibition?

Christine Sciacca: Yeah, so, my study of Ethiopian art goes back about two decades. I was exposed to it in graduate school. I had no idea about the cultural production in Ethiopia, and I happened to take an African art course that exposed me to it and my mind was kind of blown, because I was studying manuscripts in Europe from the same time period, and they were both doing very similar things.

So, that kind of got me started, and I’ve always tried to keep my foot in the world of Ethiopian studies and to think about, you know, how we could present it to the public. So coming here to the Walters six and a half years ago meant that I was entering a collection of over 200 Ethiopian objects that we have in our permanent collection.

So, that is very unusual for most museums outside of Ethiopia, and also a way to kind of think about how we can present it in a slightly different way. So, my, one of my textbooks in graduate school was African Zion, which was actually an exhibition that we did back in 1993 here at the Walters.

And it was the first exhibition to really expose American audiences to Ethiopian art. And so, that was my textbook, learning about Ethiopian art. It was a great survey. African Zion really treated Ethiopia in a very isolated way, and Ethiopia was anything but isolated during its entire history. So, I was very interested in seeing the connections it made with other cultures that surrounded it.

So, cultures across the Red Sea, South Arabia, going up the Nile to Egypt, the Mediterranean, going into Europe, also going across the Indian Ocean to the Indian subcontinent. So, that for me was a great jumping off point to think about the Walters collection, because not only do we have an incredible Ethiopian art collection, we have an incredible global collection.

So, a lot of that story I could actually tell through our own collection here at the Walters. But there were also some limitations. So, the Ethiopian art we have here at the Walters is mostly Christian art. So, Ethiopia was one of the first Christian nations on the planet, starting in the mid-4th century CE, and so that worked really well in terms of collecting and adding it to our collection. But the story is much bigger when you really get down to learning about Ethiopia. So, I had to call upon other institutions that had holdings of Ethiopian Islamic art, Ethiopian Jewish art, art from the south of Ethiopia.

And so, that was one way to really kind of expand the story and tell the whole story. So that’s kind of, when you talk about checklist building, that’s kind of what we do as curators. We work with what we have to hand and then we sort of fill in with other things that might really tell the full story.

Karena Ingram: And it’s incredible to see how this very rich culture is being expanded upon and making those connections of historical works with the contemporary, and I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit about that dialogue that is being created in this exhibition?

Christine Sciacca: Yeah, so that’s another area that I also had to delve into from elsewhere because, as you know, we don’t typically collect a lot of contemporary art. But I think for Ethiopia, it’s really important to look at artists who are working today because many of them are actually looking back to historical Ethiopian art, and they’re really thinking about some of the themes, the subjects, even the color palette that they were using in these historical periods.

So, it was really important for me to bring in some artworks by contemporary artists, and also to show them side by side with the historical works. So that, I think, has really not been done before, and so I’m excited for visitors to see that.

And also, we reached out to a contemporary artist, so Tsedaye Makonnen, who’s a local, born and raised in Washington D.C., and she is both an artist and also a curator. So, we called upon her to kind of think about what is really going on in Ethiopian contemporary art, and to incorporate some of her thoughts into the labels in the exhibition, on the contemporary pieces, and to just get her perspective as growing up as an Ethiopian American here in the U.S. and coming from immigrant parents from Ethiopia.

Karena Ingram: Yeah, the generational aspect of it is a fascinating one to see through the art and how these voices connect to each work. Has there been anything that kind of surprised you when making these connections?

Christine Sciacca: Yeah, I think, I certainly have studied the history of Ethiopia, so I have a sense of the whole picture, but more interesting to me is actually people’s reaction and what people do and don’t know about Ethiopia.

So, first of all, it was one of the earliest Christian nations. I had a colleague ask me, "Well, should we talk about colonialism, and Ethiopia and Christianity?" And I said, well, hang on. (laughter) First of all, it was, It’s the second oldest Christian nation on the planet, and second of all, Ethiopia is the only African country that was never colonized.

So, we can’t actually- that’s not the story with Ethiopia at all. So that- it was surprising. I sort of understood that, and it was kind of always in the back of my head, but I didn’t realize that others might think it functioned differently. So, that was surprising to me. And also, I would say just to understand the long history of Ethiopia’s interactions.

So, it was communicating with India back in the 4th century during the Aksumite Empire. These are long distances. Uh, we tend to think that medieval people didn’t travel, but in fact they did. They were trying to, you know, all the reasons we travel today for economic reasons, religious reasons, just to explore.

So, I think really understanding the depth of those connections that Ethiopia had going way, way back was a revelation for me. And I think just to, yeah, think about the fact that Ethiopia was not isolated at all, because that’s kind of how I learned about Ethiopia was in that isolated way. So, it was actually very well connected the more and more I learned about it.

Karena Ingram: And it’s exciting to hear and even learn from you in this moment. More of that travel history. Like, I did not know that at all, and so it’s incredible to think back. But you had also traveled yourself to Ethiopia, twice now. First back in 2020 and I believe with Karen French our paintings conservator, and most recently a few weeks ago, actually, from the time that we’re recording this, and so, could you talk a little bit about how your trip to Ethiopia influenced decisions that were made with this exhibition?

Christine Sciacca: Yeah, I mean, I was almost thinking about it with your last question because just going there and seeing the art that I had studied for so long in the place where it was made, still functioning in daily life there today, was really- it just completely changed my perspective on everything. And also just taking in the landscape. The, you know, what are the sights, the smells, the sounds, all of those things that make up part of the world of these artworks was just- it brought it all together for me. And also just to see that deep history. So, you know, you can go to the National Museum in Ethiopia and see the bones of Lucy, who we are basically all descended from, right, this early hominid.

You can go to the site where the queen of Sheba’s. That is really profound, maybe just coming from my American perspective, where, you know, our recorded history is quite new. So having that deep, deep history going back thousands of years is just, in fact, millions of years, is, was, was really moving for me and kind of changed my whole perspective on the art that I’ve been studying.

The other piece of my travels to Ethiopia allowed me to meet with colleagues in Ethiopia at different museums and to really hear about their approach to presenting their own culture, and sort of think about how some of that might be integrated into how we show the artworks at the Walters today and in this exhibition.

And so, that was an incredibly helpful perspective. I also, of course, back home here in the DMV area have my community advisory committee, which has been advising me on ways that they would like to see their culture presented, and it was interesting to see it also from the perspective of actually being in Ethiopia. And one great product of all of this was that I went back Just a few weeks ago to Ethiopia to actually bring back objects from the Institute of Ethiopian studies in Addis Ababa. They’re affiliated with the university of Addis Ababa, and they were very generous to lend us several icons also crosses that we will include in the exhibition, so actual works from Ethiopia that had been on display in the galleries there to pay a little visit to us for a few months.

Karena Ingram: That’s incredible. So, you’re truly, in this exhibition, bringing Ethiopia to Baltimore, which is such a beautiful journey. And I think it’s even fun too, that there are different sensory interactives that kind of also pay homage to the scents and the things that you could see or experience in Ethiopia. Could you talk more about that kind of collaboration with our Gallery Experience Team?

Christine Sciacca: Yeah, so, that’s the challenge of doing a show like this is some of our audiences will have been to Ethiopia or are from Ethiopia, so they understand what the sights and the smells and the sounds are, but for a lot of our audiences, they have no frame of reference. So, I really wanted from the beginning this to be a very immersive exhibition, so you get the sense of the landscape, all these things that you can’t really get in a, usually in a museum experience. So, working with our gallery experience team, we were able to do a few things that would kind of help enhance that.

So, from the curatorial end, we have some big blow-up murals of different sites around Ethiopia. When you walk through, you’re able to pick up at three different locations, these little cards with the scents, some scents that you might experience in Ethiopia. So, Incense, if you went into a church context. What does an Ethiopian manuscript smell like? What does berbere spice smell like? Which is very important in Ethiopian cuisine.

And sort of you can experience those things as you’re looking at the objects to kind of make you feel like you’re smelling the things you would smell if you were in, you know, looking at these objects in their original context. The second interactive that we have in the exhibition really plays upon Ethiopic language and the very ancient Ethiopic language known as Ge’ez, and that is a language that was used throughout Ethiopia early on, but today is really only used in a church context for the liturgy.

So, we, wanted to really highlight that language because it is so ancient and because also it appears not just in, say, book form, in manuscripts, but also it’s in inscriptions on crosses, inscriptions on icons. You can kind of hunt and seek for them in the gallery and that’s what our Gallery Experience Team has done, which is that they have created a kind of little alphabet that you can carry with you, and you can look for the different letter forms as you walk through the exhibition and various artworks.

You can also trace the forms of Ge’ez letters right in front of the interactive there. Also, as part of this interactive to learn about Ethiopic script, we have a video of my former Ge’ez teacher, Dawit Muluneh, who was talking about how he teaches Ge’ez today and how it sort of functions and why it is so important today to still learn Ge’ez, even though it’s primarily just used in the church.

And so, we actually have throughout the exhibition, these stations where we have voices from our local community or local Ethiopian community talking about different aspects that relate to the exhibition. So, kind of getting the story as it’s told by people who grew up in this kind of culture and really hearing their perspective on some of the objects and, and concepts in the show, so that’s another very exciting element that’s kind of an interactive piece of the exhibition as well.

Karena Ingram: It’s lots to look forward to, from sensory interactives to the history and the context behind a lot of the artwork that’s a part of the exhibition. I mean, the exhibition itself is beautiful, with floor-to-ceiling murals and all the color and patterning.

But I have to ask you, and it feels like I’m asking to pick your favorite child, right?

Christine Sciacca: Yeah, absolutely.

Karena Ingram: I must ask, what is your favorite work of the exhibition?

Christine Sciacca: So, I keep coming back to this one particular work that’s actually in the Walters collection. It’s called a processional fan or liturgical fan. And basically, you can envision a very long piece, actually several pieces of parchment, animal skin, stitched together. If it were fully, fully extended, it would be about, did we say 12 feet? We did the math before. But it’s actually folded up in kind of accordion style. So, it kind of, you know, it’s shorter than that when we open it up.

And it would have had boards on either end of it originally and you can sort of extend it in a big circle from board to board as like a fan. And on that, a piece of parchment, there are all these standing figures. They’re biblical figures, various saints, the Virgin Mary. And when you open this up as a fan, it would have been carried in religious processions, Christian processions in Ethiopia, just like processional crosses are carried, icons are carried. This is another type of icon.

I love it because it’s such an unusual object. There’s only about six of these that survive and all the rest of them are in Ethiopia and we’re very privileged to have one in our collection here at the Walters. It’ll be first front and center what you see as you walk up to the exhibition space because we pulled out a few figures from that piece and blown them up really big on the title wall.

And I’m really excited for people to see this really unusual and remarkable object. This is something that you don’t find in very many cultures at all. So, it’s something that was sort of uniquely developed and really played with in Ethiopia and we’re just grateful to have it to be able to show to visitors today.

Karena Ingram: Christine, thank you so much again for joining us on the podcast and talking more about Ethiopia at the Crossroads.

Christine Sciacca: Thanks. Thanks, Karena.

Karena Ingram: Thank you so much again to Christine Sciacca for speaking to me about Ethiopia at the Crossroads We’ve talked about exhibitions at the Walters from a curator’s point of view, but the science behind it all is just as fascinating. Let’s hear from our conservation scientist, Annette Ortiz, about her work in our science lab and the special team that helps her research and assess objects from our collection.

Annette Ortiz: The conservation Science team consists of me and five other colleagues, and that’s how I refer to the equipment I use to answer historical and technical questions about the Walters Art Museum collection. We have the XRF Prime, or ARTAX, XRF Junior, also known as ELIO, Mr. Raman, FORS, and the Leica Twins.

So let me introduce you to everyone.

The XRF Prime and XRF Junior are both X-ray fluorescent spectroscopic techniques. The XRF is a non-invasive technique, which means that they do not cause any damage to the object during the analysis. And they tell us about the elemental composition of materials by using an X-ray source. I like to call it XRF Prime because I am a fan of the Transformers films, and this was one of the first XRF made with an application to the study of cultural artifacts.

XRF Jr. was made by the same company years later and is more compact. The instrument is a camera tripod, which makes it portable, and I can travel with it in a pelican box or in a special suitcase and work in the museum galleries while the museum is closed.

Mr. Raman’s name comes from the Indian physicist Sir C. B. Raman, known for his research in the field of light effects, and a fun fact is that he was the first Asian scientist to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics and any field in science for his discovery in the 1930s. Mr. Raman uses a laser beam that is pointed at an object. Then the laser beam is scattered by the object producing a change in wavelength and frequency detected by the equipment.

In this case, we need a tiny sample because we cannot place the object in the instrument chamber. But this will be enough to get molecular information about the composition of the object. Then there is FORS, my favorite toy. The name comes from its acronym, Fiber Optic Reflectance Spectroscopy, another non-invasive technique.

FORS works by collecting the light reflected from the object, and ideally, we want to detect only the light that is coming from our source, so for that I must work in the darkness.

Last but not least, Leica Twins. This is how I refer to the two Leica microscopes, named after Beyoncé’s dancer, Les Twins. When you enter the lab, you will find the microscopes next to each other. One is coupled to a camera, and I can take images of samples using reflected and transmitted light and look at them on a computer screen. The other is a more straightforward instrument with magnifications up to 10 times as big, which is very useful tool for handling tiny samples and looking at artwork. These pieces of equipment are essential to identify pigments, metal alloys, corrosion products, and other materials and forms of degradation. This information is relevant to address questions of conditions, authenticity, technology of manufacture, and provenance.

Karena Ingram: Thanks so much again, Annette, for introducing us to your lovely team and for the work that you do at the museum.

Ethiopia at the Crossroads has been made possible in part by two major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy Demands Wisdom, and by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This project is also supported by the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, the PNC Foundation, the Hilde Voss Eliasburg Fund for Exhibitions, contributors to the Gary Viken Exhibition Endowment Fund, Nanci and Ned Feltham, The International Center of Medieval Art, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and other generous supporters. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of the Museum and Library Services, or other funders.

Free access to the Walters Art Museum, online and in person, is made possible through the combined generosity of individual donors, foundations, corporations, and grants from the City of Baltimore, Maryland State Arts Council, Citizens of Baltimore County, Howard County Government, and Howard County Arts Council. To learn more about engaging with or supporting the Walters visit

A big thanks again to Christine Sciacca and Annette Ortiz for talking with us today. The Walters Art Museum Podcast is made possible by Marketing and Communications Director Connie McAllister, Communications Manager Sydney Adamson, Content Writer Justin Sanders, Computer Support Specialist Frank Dickerson, and edited and hosted by me, Karena Ingram.

We hope that you enjoyed this episode. If you did, please leave us a review and share this episode with your friends. You can visit for more information and to plan your visit. Again, I’m your host Karena Ingram. Until next time.