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2000 "Museums for Peace and Harmony in Society"

   This year's theme, "Museums for Peace and Harmony in Society", reflected the United Nations's declaration of the year 2000 as "International Year for a Culture of Peace". The first issue of ICOM News this year was dedicated to the role of museums in creating and promoting a culture of peace, and many museums followed this theme in their celebrations.

Museums for peace?
Tunisia, Malaysia: two responses on the museum as historical witness and guardian of cultural diversity...

The Sarawak Museum
A century of multi-ethnic Sarawak

Sanib bin Said
Director, Sarawak Museum Department, Sarawak, Malaysia.

The Sarawak Museum was built by the Brookes family in 1891, under the British Empire. It was originally dedicated to research into natural history, and the collections were mostly zoological. At that time the main research issue in Europe was the origins of man. In fact, a co-researcher of Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, stayed in Sarawak for several months studying the orang utan and it is believed that his paper inspired Charles Darwin to come up with the theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest.
Over the years, the Sarawak Museum evolved into an ethnographical museum concentrating on ethnic material cultures and oral traditions. Since Malaysian independence in 1963, it has continued to expand its ethnographical collections, with more balanced exhibitions and collections from all ethnic groups. This came about due to the realization that the museum had an important role to play in facilitating the state and nation in building a harmonious and stable community. It should be borne in mind that in the state of Sarawak alone there are 23 major ethnic groups of native origin. There is in addition one ethnic group of Chinese origin which was brought by the Brooke Raj from 1870 onwards as migrant or guest workers and which is now the largest group, accounting for 30% of the state's population of 1.9 million. In the last 20 years, many Western countries have been experiencing the cultural shock of large numbers of guest workers, as well as migration from former colonies. To us in Sarawak, diversity of culture, ethnicity and religion is not an issue at all. In the Sarawak Museum, each ethnic group is proud to have its cultural artefacts exhibited and at the same time each group learns about the other ethnic groups' cultures. This learning process aims to instill respect and understanding so as to help people avoid offending each other and so as to promote tolerance.
In the past, the museum's ethnographical collections were biased towards the Dayak poeple, since they were seen as exotic. More recently, we have been trying to balance the collections so as to reflect the overall ethnic composition of the population, so that no ethnic group is left out. Additionally, the Sarawak Islamic Museum was opened in 1992 to cater for the Muslim population, and our early guest workers, the Chinese, are now citizens of the nation, and a Chinese History Museum was established in 1993. We also adopted the policy of portraying inter-ethnic cultural interaction, for example in themes such as festivals or kinship systems.
The diversity of our public requires museographical techniques attuned to it. Ethnographic artefacts need to be displayed to show context and meaning within the society, whereas in the past they were displayed in isolation, as works of art. In the Sarawak Museum, 80% of our visitors are local, repeat visitors, including schools. Hence we must employ new interpretation techniques which help these visitors, including multilingual presentation. We have a 7-year vision for the introduction of new technology and new techniques of exhibition presentation, taking into account different education levels and the learning habits of different publics.

Sarawak Museum Department,
Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg,
93566 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.
Tel. (60 82) 258 388. Fax (60 82) 246 680.
Email: museum@po.jaring.my

National Museum of the Bardo
Interwoven histories in the Mediterranean basin

Aïcha ben Abed,
Researcher, National Heritage Institute, National Museum of the Bardo, Tunisia.

The museum, as a place that preserves and recounts the traces and memory of humankind, is an ideal means for illustrating our human aspiration to peace and respect for the other.
In the Mediterranean basin in general and in North Africa in particular, the superposition of civilisations that have succeeded one another over the millennia has led to the creation of masterpieces whose interest and beauty lie mainly in the enriching mutual influences which can be read in them.
The Maghreb has a vast number of remains bearing witness to the passing of people of diverse origins since prehistoric times. Today's reductionist theories that exclude particular groups of people are absurd, and are constantly being proved wrong by the simplest scientific analysis.
If we take Tunisia as an example of this diversity, we can see that the country's thirty or so museums open to the public offer visitors rich collections of works ranging from the Upper Palaeolithic to magnificent collections of gold and silver work from the popular arts and traditions of the 19th and early 20th century.
The Bardo and Carthage museums also house Punic works dating from the 7th to the 2nd century B.C. These works were created by a great civilisation that originated in the Middle East but which was strongly influenced by the techniques and aesthetics of the Berber people who were native to the region. However, the fame of these museums comes from their collections of antique mosaics. This is particularly the case of the Bardo Museum, whose collection is unique. The art of the mosaic was the most representative art form of the Mediterranean in antique times and several Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Egypt, Spain and Tunisia claim to be the cradle of this technique, raising it to the level of an art.
The African museum school has created paintings in which Punic, Hellenistic and Roman influences intertwine to create an original style that has also, indisputably, had an influence in the Mediterranean.
These works created in a land that was formerly pagan and then widely converted to Christianity can be seen alongside wonderful collections of Islamic art. Surely the decoration of the wood panels in the Kairaouane Mosque (in Fez) recalls the repertory of geometric and floral compositions of the mosaic pavements of sites like Thuburbo Majus in Tunisia. And was not the prayer room in the great Zitouna Mosque in Tunis structured by columns and capitals that came from the temple remains of Roman Carthage?
With all the intertwining and constant exchange borne out by our museum collections, how can we not celebrate diversity or prove the long history of encounters between peoples? How can I not tell my child that tomorrow's dream can only be great if it is nourished by the beauty of both past and present? Let us then make sure that our museums are places where cultures are shared, knowledge is gained and differences are respected.

Institut national du Patrimoine,
Musée national du Bardo, 4, place du Château, Tunis, Tunisia.
Tel. (216 1) 561 622 / 259. Fax (216 1) 562 452.

Articles published in: "ICOM News", Volume 53 - 2000 N°1



 
 
   
Updated: 16 June 2005