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

    SUHAIL BISHARA~

    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

    0260-4779/85/03 0279-09 f03 .OO @ 1985 Butterwonh & Co (Publishers) Ltd

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    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

  • SUHAIL BISHARAT 281

    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 Arabic was the sine qua non for full acceptance, while at the same time local production and initiative, whether economic or cultural, were syphoned off to the Ottoman capital. Local communities were allowed to survive, but not to flourish. In short, centuries of Ottoman domination gave way to Western control. This left little breathing space for museums to begin. Museums cannot grow without vigorous, loyal collectors, nor survive unless a society takes pride in its past and has confidence in the future.

    It is quite remarkable that Jordan has any museums at all. The Archaeological Museum on the citadel of Amman is at the highest point of the city, directly exposed to any air attack.3 Since World War II, Jordan has experienced the 1948 war, the 1967 war, the 1973 war, the continuing influx of refugees from Israeli aggression not only from those wars but also from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Yet despite clearly expressed concern among Jordanians for the museums vulnerable position, the museum with its prized examples of the Dead Sea Scrolls remains in situ. This and other museums in Jordan continue to expand because of public confidence and commitment.

    Not far below it, in the wadi that now forms the central business district of Amman, lies an equally remarkable small museum, the Museum of Popular Traditions. Opened in 1972, it sits astride the Roman amphitheatre, to the left of the scena, and houses the collection assembled by Sitt Sadiya al Tell, now opened to the public. Displayed in simple but masterfully designed and

  • 282 Museums in the Arab World

    The Amman Folklore Museum is housed in the west wing (front left of picture) of the Roman amphitheatre in the centre of Amman.

    arranged cases by Ali Jabri, one of Jordans leading contemporary artists, it reflects the last century of Jordanian cultural experience in the richness of tribal dress and urban artefacts. Only the magnificent mosaics of Jerash (Gerasa), displayed within a great barrel vault of the restored Roman theatre, of which it is an integral part, serve as a reminder of earlier antecedents.

    The creator of the museum exemplifies the potential for cultural sophistication and public spirit in the new city of Amman. The widow of Jordans late Prime Minister, Wasfi Tell, Sitt Sadiya is from a prominent Aleppo family, where both Turkish and Arabic were an integral part of early life. Connections linked her family to the cultural centres of the region: Istanbul, Damascus and Cairo, as well as Aleppo. At the same time she understood the purity and strength of the bedouin sources, both from her husbands traditions and from her own family. This meeting of two very different cultures-the urban effete and the bedouin-may be found only in the exhibition at the museum she established for Jordan. Dependent upon her own efforts and supported largely by donations from the public and devotion from such as Ali Jabri, they have managed to install up-to-date humidity and temperature controls, but there is little to keep it alive and much that threatens to bring its demise. There is no trained museum staff to record, maintain and display acquisitions. Nor is there a budget or programme for regular expansion, let alone competent maintenance. There are only three employees.

  • SUHA~L BISHARAT 283

    Staffing and Maintenance

    A characteristic of museums in the region is good intentions and ideas at the inception, but a lack of appreciation as to the costs of continuity and the need for training staff in curatorial disciplines, as well as for buildings designed for the conservation of objects. Often the idea dies with the founder, despite the efforts of the government, as with Mahmoud Khalils exquisite collection of French Impressionist paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, housed in his delicate palace in Cairos Zamaalek.4

    There is no curatorial tradition, little training in conservation outside archaeology, and no established discipline of museum management. It may well be that the sudden increase we witness today in the number of museums in the Arab world, and the concomitant demand they establish for these skills, will force the training of qualified staff and the formation of government and private boards to create the financial mechanisms and funds needed to perpetuate repositories and exhibition spaces of excellence. We may equally well witness, however, a period of a decade or more during which well-designed displays gather dust, museums are locked up and private collectors donate their collections to Western institutions which can guarantee in some fashion their proper cataloguing, conservation, protection and display. Today is a test period.

    Regrettably, cultural institutions are highly sensitive to business cycles; they are the last to ride the buoyant waves of prosperity and the first to suffer from contraction. Even the vast plans for Saudi Arabias new National Museum are already shrinking on the drawing boards. Means must be found to provide a buffer against cyclical changes, over-expansion during prosperity and closure during recession. In many countries, governments have provided this cushion, but at the expense of individual initiative and sufficient funds. Their recognition can often only be token, as a whole series of other human priorities precede those of museums in developing countries.

    On the other hand, in the Arab world there is no museum tradition of foundations, patrons of the arts and endowments which can ensure the survival of public collections through lean years. Private museums in the Arab world operate from hand to mouth, although the diet today may well be viewed in the West as high calorie, high protein. This assessment, however, is not realistic. The crux of the matter is that there is no mechanism, no fund that ensures their continuity. Donations are absorbed by immediate needs, maintenance as well as new purchases. Lavish sums may be spent on openings or guest exhibitions, but little is put aside for the future, for increasing the permanent collection or for improving the staffing. This need not be the case. There are traditional mechanisms which could well be adopted to accommodate the needs of museums. The Waqf, or pious foundation of Islam, provides one example. It supported schools, hospitals and libraries for centuries. Wadfunds are donated in perpetuity, administered by a board of trustees bound by the stipulations of the founder, and held relatively independent of government or private interference, subject however to review by designated authorities on the proper use of the funds.

    There is no modern adaptation of this tradition for museums in the Arab world, but private individuals and groups in Turkey over the last ten years have developed a set of such foundations whose activities focus on the conservation and restoration of the cultural heritage, including the operation of restored monuments from which the income accrues to the waqfand is credited to a revolving fund which may then be used for further cultural investment. In Cairo during the 1930s there was the beginning of such a solution with the Comite pour la Conservation des Monuments Arabes, and it served as an adviser to the Director of Waqfs. It may well be that new foundations in the Arab world, such as the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation and the King Faisal Foundation, wilI evolve in this direction. The course is yet unclear.

    An entrepreneurial spirit, whether in the public or private arena, can point the way to such solutions. One need only recall that no insurance company would insure the Tutankhamun

  • 284 Museums in the Arab World

    exhibition as it was moved by road from Cairo to Alexandria, but after Alexandria it was fully insured as it travelled to New York, and was deemed at the outset a very lucrative undertaking. And so it proved to be.

    In part, innovations may be expected from the new generation of collectors, many of them still young, who in the next two decades may find the way to shift their interests and time from business to culture. But they will also need an army of well-trained Arab specialists. And here is the major lacuna. Their training takes time and investment and few young people of calibre, especially in a society where technology and business prowess take precedence, are ready to enter these fields. Nor are there any additional incentives to attract them. Without foresight, a generation of well-intentioned museum founders will find that they have no one to guide them and may thus, out of impatience, resort to donating to institutions in the developed world where such a curatorial staff has been carefully groomed. There may be no Bernard Berensons for tomorrows Isabella Stewart Gardners, no Alfred Barrs or DHarnancourts for the new set of Rockefellers.

    The Kuwait National Museum and the Jordan National Gallery

    Two new museums make a study in contrasts for the focus, scope, resources and future of museums in the Arab world. Each may be expected to modify its aims and mode of operation over the next few years, but together these two give a clear insight into the dynamics of collecting and museums, their potentials and pitfalls, the vision and devotion of a few.

    The Al-Sabah collection that forms the heart of the Kuwait National Museum is new by any standards. Younger even than its founders, She&h Nasser Sabah al Ahmad al-Sabah and his wife, Sheikha Hussa Sabah al Salem al-Sabah, it is the personal collection of two people who have chosen to direct their refinement, education, wealth and interests as connoisseurs to selecting and purchasing superior examples of Arab medieval material culture so that they might be housed once again in the Arab lands of the modern world. To do this, in the best tradition of the wealthy medieval Arab aristocracy of merchants who centuries ago commissioned many of these pieces, they have called on expert advisers to guide them and assist them in the selection,

    The Jordan Archaeologi- cal Museum perches on the top of the Amman Citadel (Rebel Qalaa), surrounded by Roman, Byzantine andumayyad ruins.

  • SUHAIL BISHARAT 285

    purchase and housing of their collection. They went primarily to the West for this expertise in art history and for the museum technical skills. Philippe de Montebello gave his blessing to the project and thus Marilyn Jenkins of the Metropolitan Museum of Art undertook the direction of accessioning, measuring and cataloguing the objects for conservation, photography, publication and exhibition.6

    On display today in Kuwait within a structure built some time ago by the Government of Kuwait, the challenges of maintenance, staffing, diversification and new acquisitions will now confront these young collectors over the trial period of the next few years. The test will be whether they can train adequate Kuwaiti staff to replace in part their Western advisers, and whether they can gain the national support needed to make the National Museum mature. They are both remarkably young, not yet in their 3Os, and are well aware of these challenges. Their solutions are bound to provide examples for the Arab world relevant for conditions of ample resources and knowledge.

    The Jordan National Gallery, on the other hand, began with an idea, not a collection, and with the slimmest of financial resources. Founded by the Royal Society for Fine Arts in 1980, it was to be a pioneer in the Arab world and the neighbouring Islamic countries, collecting examples of contemporary art to present to the public a comprehensive, growing collection of modern Arab artists working on canvas, in lithographs, ceramics, stone or other sculptural materials. Its inception came from a group of individuals, all of whom were collectors or artists themselves; the catalyst that brought them together and turned the idea into reality was the President of the Society, Her Royal Highness Princess Wijdan Ah. Funds to start the collection, and the rent for a small building to house it, came from private donors and businesses.

    Opened in 1980 by their Majesties King Hussein and Queen Noor, it has in the five short years of its existence held 3 2 exhibitions, drawn from major Western sources such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Harvard Semitic Museum, and, more important for its aims, from throughout the Arab world and from Arab artists who work in the West but are rarely, if ever, exhibited to their compatriots. Its primary function is to collect, record, document, publish and exhibit the works of contemporary Arab and Islamic artists of excellence. Exhibitions selected from the National Gallerys collection of contemporary Jordanian artists have recently been sent abroad, one to be exhibited in Istanbul and Ankara, and another to be exhibited in Warsaw and Krakow.

    The acquisitions come largely from individual donations by benefactors, acquisitions from exhibitions held in the National Gallery (from which it selects one or two works in return for covering all the transport, catalogue, opening and other expenses for exhibiting artists) and from special donations by individuals, businesses and from artists themselves. The Government of Jordan has also contributed each year a modest sum that assists toward salaries and maintenance. The Board of Trustees is composed of prominent business and cultural leaders; its operating budget is minimal and it has no endowment.

    In the few short years of its existence, however, the National Gallery has expanded beyond all expectations, adding a new wing to house major acquisitions, many of which would otherwise have to be kept in storage. An architect donated his time for the design and local companies gave the building materials. The National Gallery has had little or no foreign expert advice. The first Director was Samer Tabaa, a talented Arab sculptor with a masters degree in fine arts. Its present Director was originally trained as a petroleum geologist and worked in oil exploration until turning to the arts. Since undertaking the direction of the museum, he has had some limited specialized training in museum management. Whatever training the museum staff has acquired has been provided within the museum itself on a daily basis after they had been hired by the Director. Each learns as the museum evolves. Yet all are expected to perform not only to international standards but with a programme of exhibitions which even a far larger, trained staff

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    Inside the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts. The main collection on the first floor consists of works by major contemporary artists from several Islamic countries.

    would find difficult to accommodate. Its staff amounts to five persons. With both museums, the initial enthusiasm of opening may well mellow into reflection and

    more careful programming to develop technical capacity.

    The Museum of the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at Yarmouk University

    In the north of Jordan there is a museum building without a collection, with no staff of its own but supported by nascent ideas. It may be one source for the technical capacity that is now needed so badly. It is the type of institution to watch in the Arab world if collections like those of the Kuwait National Museum and the Jordan National Gallery are to survive and expand. A somewhat similar case in formation though not resources may be found at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. The Institute has recently been formed under the direction of Dr Muawiya Ibrahim, himself an archaeologist of international note, to train students at the graduate level in archaeology and anthropology. The fields cover epigraphy and archaeology of the Islamic periods as well as the more usual ones. There are well-trained academics on the staff, most of them Arabs, but as yet no technicians in conservation, restoration and museum management. But the technical positions are there, as are the programmes for their further training. The university, itself hardly a decade old, lies in the centre of rich archaeological and ethnographic territory. Faculty and students are already active in fieldwork and there is an effort to encourage townspeople in the adjacent city of Irbid, some of whom have significant collections, to support the new museum.

    Today the two-storey-high set of halls and a courtyard lie empty but ready to receive acquisitions. The institutes dig room is already filling with artefacts and the young faculty is

  • looking at ways to they have available

    SUHAIL BISHARAT 287

    plan for an appropriate display design that will best capitalize on the space for the public and for students. From this and similar institutions we mav

    expkct the curators of the nkw collections now being formed in the Arab world. i

    Conclusion

    These institutions, along with many others, as well as private collectors not yet kown in the West, are well worth watching over the next decades. They may presage an era of expansion, such as the West experienced in the early twentieth century. The test lies in the way sound foundations are laid today for attracting and developing competent curatorial staff.

    Acknowledgements

    I am grateful to the Royal Society of Fine Arts and escpecially to its President, HRH Princess Wijdan Ali, for making it possible for me during the process of building the collection of the Jordan National Gallery to associate closely with new museums, collectors and cultural institutions in the Arab world. From my wife, Leila Bisharat, comes my appreciation of Turkish museology, some of which has made its way into this article.

    The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Jordan National Gallery nor of the Royal Society of Fine Arts.

    The photographs are by Jane Taylor.

    Notes

    1. M. Cezar, Sunatiu Batiyu Aqilis ve Osmun Humdi (The Opening of Art to the West and Osman Hamdi) (Ankara, 1971). 2. R. Storrs, Orientations (London, 193 7), p. 111. 3. M. Brawne, Some Recent Trends in Museum Design and the New National Archaeological Museum in Jordan, The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, II (3), 198 3 ( pp. 2 57-264. 4. The story of this remarkable man who occupied himself with promoting contemporary Egyptian artists as well as with collecting European paintings, has yet to be written, but see: Peintres et Sculpteurs dEgypte, Lu Rhue du Cake, Num&ro Sp&ial (Cairo, 1952); also Minis&e de la Culture, Mul Mohammed Mahmoud Kbulil et Emilienne Lute Kbulil, Catulogue (Cairo, 1968). 5. See, for example, the publication of the recent exhibition at the Islamic Art Gallery of the King FaisaI Center for Research and Islamic Studies supported by the King FaisaI Foundation: The Unity of Islamic Art (Kent, 1985). 6. M. Jenkins (ed.), Islamic Art in the Kuwait National Museum: The Al-Sabub Collection (London, 198 3). 7. F. Da&e, Les Collections de la National Gallery de Jordanie: Orientahstes et Peintres Contemporains, LOeil, 306-307, 198 1, pp. 52-59. Also Wijdan Ali, The Collection of the Jordan National Gallery, Atis and the Islamic World, II(l), 1984, pp. 28-32.