Museums for Peace?

Apparently, we are still living in the 19th century; at least that's what the BBC news website Magazine would have us believe. An article called, provocatively, "Murder, mayhem, and museums," suggests that lasting peace in Iraq may be accomplished through building museums out of Saddam's palaces. Certainly, by making something "part of history," within a museum, you remove its active power potential. But to rebuild/recreate civilization by making up museums?

Obviously I think this is more than a little problematic. Museums, as we know, are filled with power discourse, and can be considered colonial. The fact that the article interviews a curator from the British Museum (for many a symbol of the ultimate colonizing museum) just serves to underline the power disparities between the British and Iraqis.

Even more than that, I suggest that there is a disturbing class discourse here. Museums are not just places for the masses to be indoctrinated, they are also primarily middle-class sites of leisure. Middle-class intellectuals cannot be created or imposed just through building a museum; that layer of society takes a long time to build, and perhaps even longer to re-establish after traumatic events. You have to create the class first: by rebuilding universities, by creating an economy in which subsistence and survival are no longer the primary priorities, by protecting and encouraging freedom of speech and the arts. Then those people will decide what their museum will look like, and won't need the British Museum's fantasies about the cradle of civilization to patronizingly and condescendingly "help".

It is all so painfully Utopian: to pick and choose the acceptable bits of Iraqi history to commemorate, and to do so in acceptably Western ways: palaces of civilization, reclaimed by the people from tyrannical dictators, repurposed to represent new freedom while paradoxically celebrating the concentrated products of the resources of the previous social structure... Is this really what people want? Is it really how we see and use museums? Is this what museums are really about?


New Curator said…
In the UK, museums are expected to be social engineers to help tackle youth crime, improve education and offer cultural access for all.

In Iraq, "youth crime" isn't really a synonym for "civil war".
Ceri said…
Perhaps this is an opportunity for an experiment then - do museums bring peace and stability and the wonderful social benefits that 'we' believe they do? We have a chance in Iraq like never before to actually test the theory. Will anyone be brave enough to grasp it?

Perhaps the British Museum would like to sponsor it?

But yeah I share your cynicism J, it does smack of superior 'we know how to do it' from the Brits. But then we still bizarrely venerate our Royal Family despite having enough examples of tyranny from the past to embarrass them with (Henry VIII, Charles I, King John, William the Conqueror etc etc) - so what do we know. I await with baited breath the day that Buckingham Palace is turned into a homeless hostel...
J said…
New Curator: I have no problem with social engineering when it is explicitly led by a democratically elected majority government of the country in which said engineering is happening. But this is just another instance of White Man's Burden, as far as I can tell.

Ceri: Your homeless hostel comment made me LOL. I think it would be great if someone sponsored some statistics-gathering from these Iraqi museums, as well as audience surveys to see if what the Iraqis were actually seeing was in line with what the British want them to see... (Appropriately, my word verification for this comment is "gents".)
Amy said…
Following a rather heated discussion in the RCMG office just now, Ceri and I ask if anyone has actually asked the Iraqi people whether they want a museum? Will they visit it? Use it? What does it mean to them? Is the British Museum/Army involvement an empty gesture at making amends? Is it a symbol of nationhood for the Iraqi government? Or is it, as I see it, a perfectly well-meant, valid and acceptable venture which we, as museologists, are just totally over-analysing.

Do we have any readers in Iraq who would like to comment?
Amy said…
Oh, and another thing. (Playing Devil's Advocate here.) Isn't it a bit dangerous to try to transpose our cultural context onto that of another? Who says the ordinary Iraqi won't visit the museum? Perhaps they, having been through unimaginable trauma, would wish to actively engage with the cultural heritage of their own country. I don't think we can apply British/North American values to other cultural contexts. Just like you can't export western democracy wholesale to a new political arena and expect it to take off.

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