Art and History Museums in the Middle East as places of social and political production
Location SOAS Main Building - 4429
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Thomas Richard (Université Clermont-Auvergne Centre Michel de l'Hospital) email
  • Alain Messaoudi (Université de Nantes) email

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Short abstract

This panel aims at studying how works of art are defined in Middle Eastern museums and how this definition encompasses their political project. We would like to study how museums are perceived, socially and politically, including on a commercial level, by local and international audiences.

Long abstract

This panel aims at presenting papers contributing to the development of a social and political history of Museums (whether they are linked or not to monuments and archeological sites) in the Middle East. The papers will analyze how works of art are selected, classified, and the way they are exposed, by defining the actors of this process (curators, researchers, artists, tourism professionals, public officials…) on a local, national, and international scale. They will account for the impact these choices have on the very definition of these objects, the social representations and identitary constructions that sustain this process (Anderson 2006, Hobsbawm and Ranger 2012), and how works of art contribute to the affirmation of a discourse about the past, serve to create or preserve a tradition, or to the definition of a political project (Richard 2016, Kazerouni 2017). To do so, papers will address the question of target audiences and compare it with the actual visitors of these museums, together with these visitors' perception of the institution (Jelidi 2013). They will pay particular attention to the production of objects for sale inspired by the museums, aimed at a local, diasporic, or foreign audience, and to the impact that the gathering and exposition of museum collections have had on the artistic and craft production. Through the confrontation of different cases, our aim is to distinguish different models of museums and to discuss the hypothesis of their inspiration by imperial references (Ottoman, French, and British) (Poulot 1997), creating local museum traditions.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Desert roses, museums and other stories: art and history narratives in and about Qatar

Author: Alexandra Bounia (UCL) email

Short abstract

This paper aims to explore how certain objects are used to construct narratives, raise emotions and consolidate perceptions about the self and the Other as part of political museum projects in the Middle East, taking as a case study the use of the dessert rose in Qatar's museum and touristic scene.

Long abstract

The desert rose, a fragile formation of gypsum or barite crystals including sand grains, has been chosen by Jean Novel, the famous French architect, as an inspiration of his design for the new National Museum in Qatar, which is planned to open at the end of 2018. The building, encircling the old Fariq Al Salatah palace, is intended to be both a monument and a metaphor: a huge sculpture that will pay tribute and encourage emotive associations of contemporary Qatar with values such as rarity, fragility, beauty, timelessness. The building as a work of art itself will contribute to the affirmation of a particular discourse that aims to encourage a different perception and understanding of this small state: instead of a "nouveau riche" country owning its prosperity to oil and gas, a timeless, fascinating, unique and elaborate cultural reserve.

At the same time, the search for desert roses has become an important part of efforts to "lure tourists" (The Peninsula, 15/11/2016). Organised trips to the desert for "rose hunting" are further supported by references to the intangible qualities of these delicate objects that can "neutralise bad energy, purify and heal" (online).

Not surprisingly, desert roses have been introduced into the Qatari Museums shops as well: visitors can purchase decorative desert roses or even cashmere scarfs that "pay tribute to this nature's marvel" (inq-online.com).

This paper aims to use this particular object to explore the construction of artistic and historical narratives in museums in Qatar.

Museums in the Gulf: National Identity or Cultural Diplomacy? The Different Narrative of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah in Kuwait.

Author: Roberto Fabbri (Universidad de Monterrey) email

Short abstract

The paper presents Dar al-Athar aI-Islamiyyah's alternative narrative that focuses on art as a diplomatic agent to explain Islamic civilization in broad terms, as opposed to being limited to one country's national discourse as often happens in the museums in the Gulf.

Long abstract

In recent years Gulf sheikhdoms have consolidated their political mandate and legacy through large acquisition programs of artworks and building world-class museums. The aim of these policies is to foster a sense of national collective identity internally, while promoting to the rest of the world the trustful profile of a fully advanced society. While this seems to be the regional trend, this paper investigates the anomaly of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (DAI), a Kuwaiti cultural institution predating most of the museums in the area. The paper argues that DAI offers an alternative narrative focusing on art as a diplomatic agent to explain Islamic civilization in broad terms, as opposed to being limited to one country's national discourse. When in 1991, as a consequence of the first Gulf War, DAI's building was burned down, this unusual condition of being a 'museum-without-walls', protracted for many years, transformed DAI into a fluid entity, showcasing the depth of Islamic civilization locally and internationally through its primary tool of cultural diplomacy: the travelling exhibitions. This paper explores the social aspects and the political context behind these exhibitions at the global and regional scale. It also aims to investigate the role of DAI's archaeological collection on display to contribute to the local perception and understanding of the notion of an imported tradition and an acquired heritage.

The political use of Museums in Contemporary Maghreb.

Author: Charlotte Jelidi (University of Tours) email

Short abstract

Our contribution will show how progressively the Maghreb museum landscape was constituted ; we will analyze its stakes and their evolution over time, and finally discuss the paradoxes of a museum landscape partly created exogenously.

Long abstract

By focusing on the Maghreb, our contribution proposes to give useful elements of comparison for the understanding of the specificities of the museums of the Middle East. In Maghreb, museums have a political role from the beginning of their foundation until today. The colonial authorities set up the first museums in Maghreb, although the project of creating a museum is already mentioned before colonization. The museums are created in colonial context to contribute to the legitimization of the colonial power. In Algeria and Tunisia, Archeology museums accompagny the conquest, and in Morocco, crafts museums are the witnesses of the policy of indirect rule led by Lyautey,.. After independence, new museums are opened to materialize the political change and the power in place, like the Mujahid museums in Algeria. Every major political change paves the way for the creation of new museums, such as the Tunisian Arab Spring which sees museums in the glory of Bourguiba (in Skanès, for example). But the political aims of the museum, even if they are very strong here, are combined with other issues, especially ecomic, mostly in Morocco and Tunisia where tourism is very important. Our contribution will show how progressively the Maghreb museum landscape was constituted; we will analyze its stakes and their evolution over time, and finally discuss the paradoxes of a museum landscape partly created exogenously.

Art, artefacts and art production at the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth (Safi, Jordan): decision making, contexts, realities and prospects

Authors: Georgios Papaioannou (University College London (UCL)) email
Konstantinos Politis (Hellenic Society for Near Eastern Studies) email

Short abstract

This paper focuses on the various roles and aspects of works of local art (ancient and traditional) at the recently inaugurated 'Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth' (MuLPE) at Safi, Jordan, and its wider society as well as their contribution to local economic and social change and development.

Long abstract

The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth (MuLPE) is located at the south-eastern end of the Dead Sea in Safi, Jordan,, at 400 metres below sea level, the lowest place on the earth's surface. The museum was built between 2004-2007, it formally opened in 2012 and is an example of a site museum with a global appeal. It is also a model for local heritage identity with a sustainable income-generating factor, since the region of the Ghor as-Safi is a relatively underprivileged community but has rich cultural heritage which only recently has been appreciated. The museum has themes ranging from geography and environment to ancient art and technologies, conservation and local traditions, including art. The exhibition is frequently updated with newly excavated finds, artworks and information panels. Regular educational programmes are held for local school groups and the wider community. A café,

Furthermore, a museum shop is managed by the Womens' Association of Safi (WAS) with unique art and commercial (souvenir) products of their own making, inspired by artefacts and narratives exhibited at MuLPE. This endeavour was supported by the UNESCO and turned into a profitable enterprise by the WAS which has attracted worldwide attention and, together with the recently open and locally-run café, has created a home-grown cultural and entrepreneurial intuition.

This paper focuses on the various roles and aspects of works of local art (ancient and traditional) at MuLPE and its wider society as well as their contribution to local economic and social change and development.

The Israel Museum as a place of belonging

Author: Thomas Richard (Université Clermont-Auvergne Centre Michel de l'Hospital) email

Short abstract

This paper aims at understanding how the Israel Museum takes part in the creation of the Israeli identity according to the Zionist narrative, and establishes a link between Israel and the Diaspora.

Long abstract

Opened in 1965 and rehabilitated in 2010, the Israel Museum is the core museum institution of Israel. Built near the Knesset and the Israeli Supreme Court, its aim is to embody the Israeli national project, while establishing a link between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

It harbors archeological collections, some of which originates in the ancient Rockefeller museum, built during the Palestinian mandate, but differs from this institution as these collections are reinterpreted through their inclusion in the Israeli narrative with the aim of creating a sense of continuity.

It also welcomes pieces from the Jewish Diaspora, including whole synagogues, and present these artefacts as preserved remnants of an endangered life, against which Israel is a safe haven, in order to deepen the solidarity and the sense of belonging that unite Israel to the Diaspora.

These two dimensions are mixed in the art galleries that present art donated by diasporic collectors, and contemporary Israeli art, as the two dimensions of the Jewish artistic identity.

Through the study of the organization of the museum and its public, we aim to uderstand how this institution has helped in creating a patrimonial Israeli identity in the modern state, that can appeal to Israelis and diasporic visitors, as well as to tourists and pilgrims. Inspired by European and American models, the Israeli museum is also an original creation of the Israeli narrative, an educative institution, and even, through the Dead Sea scrolls sanctuary, a religious institution understood in a secular way.

National Museum of Beirut: Narrative, Identity, Money

Author: Asli Altinisik (American University of Beirut) email

Short abstract

How does private capital play a role in constructing, conveying and challenging a national identity in the National Museum of Beirut? This paper will explore the ways in which individual wealth partakes in the curation of Lebanese-ness at the National Museum.

Long abstract

This paper will examine the National Museum of Beirut's (NMB) narration of national identity and will focus on the role private capital. The objective is not to define a Lebanese national identity or compare different definitions of it, but to explore the ways in which Lebanese-ness is curated at the NMB. As a political project, construction of (a) national identity at the NMB is not exclusively the work of the state, nor is it monolithic. National identity is a discursive formation and a negotiation between conflicting or overlapping interests, interpretations and agencies. In terms of the objects and the cultural edifice they are displayed in, archaeological excavation projects and the idea of a national museum are legacies of the Ottoman rule and the French mandate. These influences yield an eclectic ideational basis for the museum. This basis is further complicated by the contemporary history of Lebanon, specifically with the Civil War between 1975 and 1990. In the aftermath of the war there have been a surge of private donations for archaeological objects' renovations, moreover, associations with the mission of 'heritage protection' have bourgeoned. In other words, renovation sponsorships and heritage associations have become particular means for private wealth to assert its own versions of Lebanese-ness at the NMB. Individual wealth has thus come to complement, or counter, the official narrative at the museum. In light of these dynamics, this paper will look at the role of individual wealth in the narration of Lebanese-ness at the NMB.

Art in Lebanon- post the civil war

Author: Diana Jeha (Khalil Salem Bteram High School ) email

Short abstract

There are number of museums in Lebanon all of which display renowned pieces of art and history that cover a number of millennia.

This paper will address the current state of museums in Lebanon and what can be done to encourage art in Lebanon.

Long abstract

Lebanon has the highest level of education in the Middle East, However, this is mainly directly to what is considered but many Arabic cultures as prestigious academic domains such as medicine and engineering.

This accompanied with art and creative education in most school has led to "cultural poverty" amongst most Lebanese.

There are a number of museums in Lebanon all of which display renowned pieces of art and history that cover a number of millennia (prehistory, bronze & iron age, Hellenistic, roman, byzantine period & Arab conquest Mamluk period, and art works for modern and contemporary Lebanese Artists…, however, our research found that people currently frequenting the art galleries and museums are mostly Europeans visiting Lebanon and a minority in the upper middle class who are influenced by the western culture or those who are themselves professional artists. The entry to one of the prestigious private museums in Beirut is currently free with the aim of encouraging visitors from all economic background, however, our data indicate that this initiative has not been successful.

This paper will address the current state of museums in Lebanon (Nicolas sursock museum in Achrafieh Beirut, Beirut National museum and Jubran Khalil Jubran museum in Bcharry North Lebanon…) and what can be done by the public and private sectors to encourage art amongst the young and future generation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.