Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cultural encounters in Sweden

One of the great bargains of Stockholm is the Stockholm card, a purchase that allows free or reduced-cost access to all museums. I got one and then set out to make sure I got my money's worth for three days - and I did. One of the museums I visited was the Swedish National Museum, a collection of art and furnishings representative of Sweden's history. As I was browsing through the 17th-18th century gallery, I noticed several fabrics and carpets to the side of the room. I went over to look at them and immediately recognized them as Persian in origin. To my delight, the text by the samples noted that these fabrics began to pour into Europe as easier travel and active trade routes developed. It also noted that the intricate geometric and floral designs became so widely incorporated into elegant fabrics throughout Europe that they became uniquely reflective of European high culture, although they were actually inspired by the Persian world. A little bit of Arab pride swelled up inside me.

The last museum of my Stockholm visit was the Medelhausmuseet, a collection of artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean world. The exhibit was closed for renovation but I picked up a magazine by the same name from the gift shop. I assumed that the magazine would describe the museum although it actually described the European Union's focus on the Mediterranean and near Middle Eastern world. The 1995 Barcelona Declaration established a path to build understanding among the citizens of the EU and the broader Mediterranean as well as protect the treasured artifacts that have been discovered in (and many times taken from) the Arab world. One of the projects sponsored by the Barcelona Declaration is the creation of a virtual museum that will bring together the resources about the Mediterranean to display them with recognition of their context, "thus maximizing mutual enrichment between the place of origin and the place of exhibition of the artifacts." (Medelhausmuseet, 3.2005, p. 26) Besides the opportunity to see objects that are now spread throughout the world, the virtual collection is intended to reflect the different understandings and interpretations in the Muslim versus non-Muslim world of the same historical events and "enriching the visitors' experience and encouraging them to visit the countries where the objects came from."

It's so very odd that for decades westerners have traveled to Europe as a statement of cultural awareness and privilege. The "Grand Tour" was a sort of "coming of age" experience for the children of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Mellons, Fricks and other wealthy Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only now have I begun to realize how much the Mediterranean and Middle East were exploited when their historical objects were taken to fill the galleries and museums of Europe. Some of the "acquisitions" of Europe were the spoils of war (i.e. Napolean). Regardless of how the objects got there, what would the Louvre, Pergamon, and even Topkapi museums be like without the many objects that were taken from the Mediterranean and Middle East? And just incidentally, the economic impact of museum collections isn't small; the Mediterranean region is the largest tourist draw in the world, a force for economic vitality taken away from those who were the descendants of the history we see in the galleries of Europe.

I was delighted to see the EU's initiative to help right the wrongs of artistic theft and incorporation. I was even more delighted to see reference to the fact that much of tourism "focuses on monumental forms of heritage, which more often than not commemorate war, conflict, conquest, and colonization - and say little about the people and how they got on with their day-to-day lives." Medelhausmuseet (3.2005, p. 32) refers to this as the valorization of war and conquest. No wonder that the people of the Mediterranean and Middle East are seen as always in conflict if that's all we see in our museums. The Mediterranean Voices initiative, a complement to the virtual museum, will bring to life the oral histories and natural cultural practices throughout this region, balancing the history of war and conflict with the nobility of everyday life.

The Medelhausmuseet is an important initiative, although a small voice in the broader museum industry. In addition, there are serious initiatives to bring the history of the Middle East, Arab, and Islamic world back to its origins. The new Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is one of the most serious examples. I returned to Doha ready to dig into understanding the art and artifacts that we now have at our doorstep.

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