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January 15, 2008

The Violence of the Nubian Museum—بطش المتحف النوبي

Filed under: Masr —مصر,Nile—النيل — Tags: , , , — admin @ 11:58 pm


How wonderful of Egypt and the International Community to come together to construct this museum to depict the lives of a disappeared culture as a monument in honor of…their own generosity. [singlepic=701,180,240,,left]This is perhaps one of the most grotesque displays of cultural chauvenism for which I’ve had the displeasure of having to pay an admission fee and pass through two separate security checkpoints (where they actually pay attention to the metal detectors, unlike everywhere else in Egypt, including airports). The museum is arranged in such away as to construct a strictly linear history (although the line is technically meandering in space), throughout most of which, what Nubian cultural achievements are recognized at all are largely characterized as parochial and derivative adaptations of Egyptian forms. After a brief detour through Coptic and Islamic art, we are greeted with a self-congratulatory display [singlepic=703,240,180,,right]of the international efforts expended to relocate many ancient temples ahead of the inundation that would be the inevitable result of the building of the Aswan High Dam. Lest they be accused of neglecting to attend to the culture of living people, the curators of the Nubian Museum constructed dioramas of “everyday life” in a Nubian village, pieced together with all the care that went into relocating the Temple at Abu Simble or Philae. [singlepic=702,240,180,,left]The similarity is striking, but the differences significant. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists measured, dissected and analyzed Nubian cultures just as they did with the blocks of Abu Simble. And they took care to mark and catalogue all those little shards of a shattered culture just as carefully as they did the blocks of ancient temples. And, finally, they reassembled all those pieces just as they had been before, but in a new place and better, more sound circumstances. [singlepic=706,240,180,,right]They built authentic (but new and improved) Nubian houses to shelter the people just as they built a reinforced steel dome and artificial hill for Abu Simble. But, of course, lives and living cultures are not so easily put back together as blocks of limestone and granite. Faced with this reality, the museum curators apparently went back to the data they gathered when they first measured, dissected and analyzed this soon-to-be-disappeared culture and reassembled the pieces in a much less problematic material than flesh, blood and bone, then they put it in a museum as a monument to the “generous” side of the forward march of progress. Hence these sickening dioramas.

[singlepic=707,240,180,,left]And yet the dioramas were apparently not enough to drive the point home. In a side room housing temporary exhibits, they set up the Nubia Submerged exhibit, composed of pictures from archaeological digs before inundation in one part, and banners extolling the accomplishments of Anthropological Research in New Nubia in another. The whole thing was characterized as a massive undertaking to “salvage” Nubia. Of course, Nubia was “salvaged” the same way a forest is “salvaged” during salvage logging operations. The efforts are variously referred to as “missions”, “expeditions” and “campaigns”, pointing to their essentially aggressive and chauvinistic function. The banners were particularly insulting, characterizing the Nubians as backward and incestuous (of course couched in politically-correct turns of phrase like “unfavorable living conditions” and “ethnic homogeneity”) and their ultimate relocation ahead of inundation due to the building of the High Dam (which I repeat, lest we forget what this was all about) as fundamentally an act of charity. [singlepic=708,240,180,,right]One panel of the display ends thus: “The results of the expeditions, published in about 40 scientific articles in Czechoslovakia, Egypt, and other countries, provide the basic data for a great socio-economic experiment with Nubians living now in improved conditions with adequate medical care in New Nubia.” This is the flip side of “the Egyptian challenge against the silent nature.” The Nubian Museum opened its doors in 1997 and yet the piece in the space reserved for temporary exhibits is focused on this great “anthropological expedition” conducted from 1965 to 1967. How very forward-thinking. To their credit, they were nice enough to allow actual Nubians to participate in this nostalgic dream by reserving for them a prominent space in the museum to sell their traditional crafts to visiting tourists.


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