World Heritage Conservation in Gondar, Ethiopia
World Heritage Conservation in Gondar, Ethiopia - Summer 2014
Interview with Allison Suhan by Fred Counts
For 2015, the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture is once again offering a trip to Gondar, Ethiopia for students wishing to help interpret and preserve the world’s heritage and histories. Last summer, Allison Suhan, who is completing her M.S. in Heritage Conservation and Preservation at the U, assisted School of Architecture professor Arthur Chen with three other students in the 2014 trip to Gondar. While there, they not only helped interpret and write
architectural descriptions of nearly sixty historic sites, but also forged bonds with Gondar University students and local residents.
My interview of Allison at the Seven Corners landmark pub was informal, light-hearted, and, quite simply, a good time. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Allison about her yearlong internship with the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, which then evolved into my interviewing of her trip to Gondar last summer. Last semester, MS student Clara Gilbert, who is currently working in Washington, D.C. as a preservation intern, was able to interview Allison remotely and gather the who, what, where, and why of her journey to Ethiopia. I was more than happy to wrap it up with a more in-depth conversation about her work in Gondar, the former imperial capital of the Ethiopian Empire.
This was not Allison’s first time overseas, as she had previously studied abroad in Italy while completing her undergraduate degree. With this in mind, we began with a clarification of her work in Gondar. Asked if building descriptions comprised the bulk of her work, Allison replied with a definite “yes”, adding that the main focus of their work was creating a site database from scratch via Microsoft Access. UNESCO wanted a more coherent and accessible way to document data collected at Gondar’s historic sites, and Professor Chen’s team contributed invaluable information to this new database in the form of building evaluations. “We had to evaluate the current conditions, the historic context of the structure, (as well as) rate conditions of certain aspects,” Allison recalls.
Allison’s work in completing building descriptions for Gondar’s historic structures has left her quite knowledgeable of Ethiopia’s historic Imperial capital. She spent countless hours detailing not only the historic castles that have given Gondar the nickname “Camelot of Africa”, but also the three-walled gated city that surrounded them. Allison and the other students tirelessly detailed the specific functions of each of the gates; for example, the Weavers Gate functioned entirely for the weavers. In addition to detailed architectural descriptions, all four students of Professor Chen’s group were in charge of making a sitemap of the area, as well as completing detailed drawings of prominent architectural features.
Traveling abroad is nothing new to Allison, but I still found it pertinent to ask if there were any unexpected cultural norms that took her by surprise during her stay in Gondar. Aside from having goat served with nearly every meal, she only could add that the Ethiopian people were nothing but accommodating and genuinely nice to her and Professor Chen’s team at all times. At times, the residents of Gondar could be friendly to a fault, simply because people were so interested in the work that was being carried out. “People knew who you were – and knew a lot about the work you were doing – before they even met you,” Allison remarked. Ethiopians –and the residents of Gondar, in particular – have a unique and deep-seated sense of pride in their history, and it was joyous to work with the various stakeholders around the city who cherished their home as a World Heritage Site.
Professor Chen’s team could not have done this work without the help of two very dedicated Gondar University students studying Heritage Tourism and Management. Experiences like those Allison enjoyed in Ethiopia show us that the world is so much bigger than the oft-visited tourist destinations scattered far and wide. Gondar taught Professor Chen’s students a sense of accountability while allowing them the experience of a lifetime. Allison highly recommends any student interested in going to do it. “Even if World Heritage is not anything you plan on immediately involving yourself in”, Allison reflected, “This trip taught me so much about working with stakeholders and understanding how heritage is interpreted and engaged with in different cultures.” Students going to Gondar through the University of Minnesota are able to do so while obtaining three credit hours to apply towards their degree.