museums, collections and collecting in the arab world: some reflections on today

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  • The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship (198 5), 4, 2 79-2 8 7

    Museums, Collections and Collecting in the Arab World

    Some Reflections on Today


    Museums are of very recent vintage throughout the Arab world, be they repositories of antiquities, ethnographical material or contemporary art. Few Arab countries, other than Iraq and Egypt, have formal museums dating from before 1950. Those museums open today have more often appeared not just during the 1950s 1960s or 197Os, but only in the last few years. What are the dynamics of this development and its peculiar challenges? This article poses these broader questions while drawing largely on the experience of one country, Jordan.

    The View from Jordan

    Why select Jordan? It is a small country, some three million inhabitants, with only one major city, Amman; and even that lacks a long urban tradition. Jordan is not an oil-producing, oil-rich country, nor can it claim one of the recognized traditional Arab centres of learning such as Cairo or Baghdad. None of these conditions would appear to be conducive to the creation of museums, nor to making Jordan suitable as an example for understanding current trends in the Arab world. Yet, this middle ground is its greatest asset as a vantage point on the Arab world today. Jordan has no established urban culture, it is true, but the Israeli occupation of Jordans West Bank, especially of Jerusalem, a centuries-old Arab centre of culture, has forced many Arabs to seek refuge elsewhere. Amman is the city which has received and absorbed the greatest numbers of refugees. Some reside in the capital, but more often the majority of the family is spread in a culturally and economically linked diaspora throughout the Arab world and the developed countries, with the Middle-Eastern nexus of travel based in Amman.

    All Jordanian families, whether from the West or East Banks of the Jordan river, have members abroad either studying or working as professionals. The countrys main export is skilled knowledge, and its main achievement a quiet revolution in learning for women as well as for men. This provides a set of windows both outwards and inwards. The countrys eclectic contemporary culture represents the earlier absorption of other Middle-Eastern peoples as well-Circassians (from the 18 70s onwards), and Armenians (from the 1890s onwards)-who earlier found refuge in these highlands, as well as the Lebanese who have made their homes here increasingly since 1975. Each has contributed the tastes and world-view of much broader cultural areas, as well as the trading interests of different networks. Amman has become a melting-pot for the Arab world.

    Uniting this community of bedouin (the original inhabitants), farmers, and merchants is the Hashemite Royal Family. King Hussein, like his father King Talal and his grandfather King Abdullah, belongs to the descendants of the Prophet, to the family of the Keepers of the Keys to the Holy Places of Mecca, heirs to the tradition of learned Islam as well as to the cultural richness of the Ottoman Empire. While the great-grandfather of King Hussein, the Sherif Hussein of

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  • 280 Museums in the Arab World

    Mecca, led the unifying Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, his own experience has combined the learning of the Arab centres of culture as well as that of Istanbul.

    It is no coincidence that the Hashemite leadership in Jordan has opened the country not only to the Arab and neighbouring Islamic countries, but also to the world at large. There is no place in Jordan for a narrow-minded view of the arts and tradition, despite the countrys lack of an established museum heritage. Nor are there funds for museum extravagance. It thus represents perhaps a middle ground of patrons of the arts, none with vast wealth, but many with old or newly acquired sophistication, as well as a vigorous young public eager to observe and absorb.

    Museums of Antiquities: Collections and Collecting

    The earliest museums in the Arab countries housed antiquities. Most, as in Egypt, were inspired by European archaeologists, in conjunction with Arab collectors and officials of European education. In Istanbul the tradition appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century, a kind of orientalism in reverse. Osman Hamdi Bey, the founder and visionary of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, excavator of such priceless pieces as the Sarcophagus of Sidon, drew his collection not only from Anatolia but also from Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Today he is as well remembered in the Arab world for his orientalist paintings (he began as a student of Gerome in Paris) as for his prowess as an archaeologist and curator.

    Whilst founded somewhat later, the Egyptian Museum and the Coptic Museum in Cairo were both more restricted in their geographic compass, being limited to the Nile Valley, and they also involved direct foreign participation, both French and British. The origins of the Egyptian Museum belong to the acquired taste of the Khedive Ismail for Egypts past, as much a product of his exposure to Europe as observation at home. Housed after 1887 in Ismails Jizah Palace, adjacent to the Osman Gardens designed by Barillet-Deschamps in the Parisian manner, it was moved in 1902 to the great Neoclassical warehouse that now houses these treasures, next to the Hilton Hotel. Like the Istanbul Archaeological Museum of the same period, it is structurally identical to contemporary museums of the period in Europe.

    The design of the Coptic Museum is quite unique, however, combining as it does Cairene architectural elements with serene courtyard space and natural lighting for the objects. Originally founded by donations to the Church in 1908, the museum opened in 19 10 and became a state museum in 19 3 1. It grew organically next to the church in old Cairo where it was first formed by Morcos Simaika Pasha, an official with the Railway. The idea was his but Europeans in Cairo at the time were eager to associate themselves with the fascinating conception of a Coptic Museum in which as many as possible-the vast majority-of the exhibits should be not only exhibits but integral portions of the structure, within and without.

    Both Cairo and Istanbul of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries belonged as much to Europe as to the Middle East. Life in the European quarters of these cities, as well as the taste of the wealthy elite, was surrounded by a cordon sanitaire, behind whose protection collections in the European fashion began to grow. However, whilst Turkey, after the War of Independence and the Establishment of the Republic (192 3), would develop a distinctly national culture of museums, collectors and curatorship, the Arab world continued under a quasi- colonialist or full colonialist presence, so that the emergence of a national consciousness of museums was delayed until well into the 1950s and often later.

    The Turkish Precedent

    Examples from Turkey may suggest some of the potential for the formation of collections and curators now that a consciousness of the Arab heritage may be expressed in unique national


    forms. During the 19 3 OS in Turkey both the universities and the Department of Antiquities took on an increasingly active role in the training of art historians and archaeologists, mounting expeditions, collecting, recording and displaying material in temporary quarters and newly designed museums. Those trained during that period, both at home and abroad, raised a new generation of specialists able to appreciate and handle their cultural heritage with a degree of sophistication and self-confidence that has spawned a panoply of regional museums, both small and large, from that which houses the treasures of Roman sculpture at Aphrodisias to the superb Hittite Museum in Ankara where the unique finds from ancient Phrygia, the Hittite capital at Hattusas and the Neolithic frescoes of Catal Hoyiik are exhibited in the inner treasury, or bedesten of a carefully restored Ottoman market.

    The Ibrahim Pasha Saray Museum of Istanbul deserves more attention than any of the spectacular museum openings of the Arab world in the last few years, not because it has a more magnificent building (which it does), nor because its collection on display is superior (though it is), but simply because it represents the culmination of this long effort at training in curatorship, in both the traditional and modern sense. Opened upon the occasion of the Exhibition of Anatolian Civilizations in 198 3, the reconstructed palace that overlooks not only the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque but also the Marmara Sea contains carefully selected Islamic pieces from the Suleymaniye within an ambience discreetly controlled by the latest in modern museum monitoring techniques and cared for by curatorial staff of superior calibre.

    What has produced this excellence. > Museums are the trophies of stability. Turkey has carefully preserved a degree of peace with its neighbours and within its borders since the 1920s providing an environment conducive to the flowering we see today. In addition, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire had a monopoly on pious foundations and wealthy, educated families who for centuries collected and preserved, often putting their private collections in trust for a pious foundation. Binding them all together was an Ottoman Way, which encompassed religion, Islam, and allegiance to the House of Osman. This too has contributed to the flourishing of museums we observe today in Turkey.

    The Arab Awakening

    In the Arab lands centuries of Ottoman rule passed in seeming benevolence with the recognition of a unifying spiritual allegiance, Islam, where


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