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A Database for the Recording of Ethiopian Art, Architecture and Culture

It is well known that the monuments of Ethiopian art have been, and remain, difficult to access by students and researchers, not to mention by the general public. Only a small group of scholars have extensive contacts with the country and have had the privilege of studying in situ Ethiopia's cultural heritage. The usual course of action for such scholars is to register the objects studied, photograph them, and publish the results of their investigation. However, only a modest amount of the material recorded makes it into books and papers. As a result, scholars are increasingly ready to share their notes, photographs and slides with others in order to promote research in the field.

Unfortunately, a major difficulty in obtaining access to pictorial material from existing collections is the lack of a systematic recording system, which in turn obliges individuals interested in a particular object or theme to undertake more or less haphazard searches through the material. Such inquiry is not only often unsuccessful but also highly time-consuming.

Meanwhile, since the late 1990s, the use of Information Technology (IT), scanners, and digitized photography has grown dramatically. Computer applications are now recognised as a major aid in carrying out complicated research tasks based on illustrative material. Software for viewing and manipulating images is readily available, making it possible to improve the visual quality of such images and and even to help decipher the texts of damaged inscriptions.

Having frequently encountered the problems of finding comparative materials for their research, Michael Gervers and Ewa Balicka-Witakowska have decided to use the advantages of computerization to make a catalogue raisonné of their photographic collection of Ethiopian art and culture accessible to the academic community via the World Wide Web. The bulk of the collection is composed of the more than 10,000 photographs taken by MG during research trips to Ethiopia between 1982 and 2002. It also includes some rare images taken by Diana Spencer in the 1960s and 1970s, and by Paul Henze and Fiona McEwen more recently. Finally, some photographs portray artefacts found in private collections and museums.

Since 2002, MG has worked with Travis Capener, a senior programmer attached to the DEEDS Project at the University of Toronto, to develop a database containing all those images, and to make them accessible over the Internet. The program meets a variety of requirements, including both research and teaching. Users have different levels of access, ranging from basic browsing with watermarked images for students and guests, to full editing capabilities for researchers.

The database program is modelled after its real-word photographic counterpart, with virtual slides, a virtual light box, and virtual slide carousels. The program displays slides on the light box in groups of eight and users can select individual slides to display at various levels of enlargement.

Along with each image, which is identified by a reference code, the system stores explanatory captions. The slides are also indexed by a wide range of criteria including date, type of object, media, type of social milieu, location, subject matter, donor, keywords, and so on. Users can search for specific slides or groups of slides either by selecting words from screen indexes of terms, or by typing keywords into a search-engine. Multiple-criteria searches may be carried out and selected images can be viewed in pairs for the sake of comparison.

The database and accompanying catalogue are under a continual state of construction and improvement. Presently, there are over 11,000 images in the system and more are added regularly. The catalogue (accessed by clicking on any thumb-nail image) allows for the entry of a wide range of data for each photograph. In due course, it will be possible to include bibliographical references, and guests visiting the site will be able to enter their comments for any image. Eventually, it will be possible to type in Ethiopian languages as well as transliteration systems.

The project has its limitations, based largely on the availability of finances and the time required to complete the necessary tasks. Travis Capener has developed the database while working on other equally demanding tasks. The database itself piggybacks on one of the servers which is connected to the Internet through the University of Toronto. All the scanning of the images is done by a single student, initially sponsored by the University of Toronto and now by the DEEDS Project ( So far, the great majority of the photography has been done by MG, but he can only photograph what he is able to see on periodic trips to Ethiopia. The preparation of the entries in the catalogue raisonné is largely the responsibility of EBW. All aspects of this undertaking involve time-consuming procedures. To make it the best possible research tool more people should become involved and stable financial support secured.

Since the flexible program is designed to respond to the research needs of all Ethiopianists, the next highly desirable step would be to include in the database a growing range of images and material belonging to other persons and institutions. With the model established, and with a small group at DEEDS familiar with the stages required for transferring images to the Internet, MG and EBW would like now to invite others to contribute to the project. It is naturally up to museums and scholars to decide whether they are prepared to give Internet access to their material, and if they do, whether some or all of that access should be restricted. What should be stressed is that with the help of new technology the copyright issues can be efficiently resolved. At the moment, all images are watermarked with the copyright of the photographer.

It would also be valuable to include material collected by Ethiopianists who worked in Ethiopia in the past. Diana Spencer's photographs are a prime example. Some members of this group may not be familiar with virtual technology, and do not need to be, as they will be supported by those who are. The urgency of this part of the project is obvious. Everybody who deals with Ethiopian art and culture knows how precious the old documentation is; as for instance photographs of objects or sites which have since been destroyed or have disappeared, or which show an artefact or building in a better state of preservation previously than it is in today.

Another goal will be to include those many images of objects or sites which went into the preparation of a publication, but which themselves were not published for lack of space or funding. Books, furthermore, are limited to the presentation of a selection of material which is only useful to scholars as far as it goes. We may mention as an example the recent book on the church of Narga Sellase. As well illustrated as it is, one can nevertheless be sure that many more photographs were used in the preparation of the volume than those which appear in it. These may never be published, for what are the chances of a second monograph on the same church seeing the light of day in a single generation? Scholars would like to see, for instance, photos of the complete iconographical program of a church, in colour, and enlarged to such a size that their accompanying inscriptions can easily be read. The same could be said for architectonic details, not to mention manuscripts, icons and crosses.

In the event that our objectives can be achieved as outlined above, this new database will serve increasingly as an indispensable resource for the investigation of Ethiopian art and culture. Although the advantages of creating such a database are largely obvious, there are additional benefits which may not be immediately clear:

The value of making material accessible to students and even established scholars, for whom the possibility of travelling to Ethiopia is limited, has already been mentioned. This site will especially benefit Ethiopian students who can obtain access to the Internet more easily than to the expensive publications on art and architecture. It will also serve the travelling scholar, who can quickly determine from the database which regions and places have been more or less well recorded previously, and which remain still largely untouched. Scholars working on Early Christian, Byzantine and Christian Oriental art can also profit from its content. One of the reasons why Ethiopian art, in comparison for instance with Coptic, Syrian or Georgian art, is neglected and underestimated in the publications of those working in the field is because of the difficulty in accessing the Ethiopian material. Finally, this database serves as a path for providing information about Ethiopian art and culture to the global public. The connection of omni-present computers to a common network allows people of diverse interests not only to use the site, but also hopefully to enjoy what they find on it.