A museum without borders

Following from my previous post – the same issue of Radical Philosophy (2.03) includes an excellent essay on ‘The Palestinian Museum‘ at Birzeit by Hanan Toukan.

It opens with a series of sharp questions about the very idea of such a museum:

How are we to think about a museum that represents a people who not only do not exist on conventional maps but who are also in the process of resisting obliteration by one of the most brutal military complexes in the world? What is, and what can be, the role of a museum in a violent colonial context compounded by the twin effects of imperialism and capitalism? Whom does the museum speak for in such a context? And what can or should it say to a transterritorial nation while physically located in a supposed state-to-be, that has no real prospect of gaining control over its land, water or skies through current international diplomatic channels?

Hanan’s discussion is framed by four issues:

First, the convoluted, bureaucratic and deceptive nature of the Oslo Peace Process and the new phase of colonisation that it inaugurated in 1993. This predicament, which has been described as one of living in a ‘postcolonial colony’ is largely defined by the paradox of living in a state without sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza under the guise of a diplomatic process leading toward a two-state solution. Under this regime, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), established in 1994 as an outcome of the now unpopular Oslo Peace Accords, did not gain full sovereignty for itself or the Palestinian people it‘represents’. Rather, it became the middleman of the Israeli Occupation, managing security and repressing Palestinian dissent on behalf of Israel through its own internal military and intelligence apparatus, helping to intensify Israeli colonial strategies of spatial segregation and economic control. At the same time, despite its increasing unpopularity the PNA has continued to act as the internationally recognised representative of a state-to-be in international diplomacy. This role has necessitated its participation in cultural diplomacy and top-down identity formation in an attempt to rebrand the image of Palestinians as non-violent and modern global citizens residing within the 1967 borders – processes that are key to understanding how and why the Palestinian Museum has, from its inception, had to think about representing the story of the Palestinian people outside the limits of the diplomatically sanctioned, yet now probably defunct, two-state solution.

Second, ‘ongoing Israeli colonial practices of cultural exclusion and military domination’ that materially limit the space within which it was possible for the museum to emerge [when I see images like the one above, from Frieze, I can’t help but think of Eyal Weizman‘s wonderful work on the optical geometry of Israeli occupation] – and third, closely and crucially linked, the restrictions imposed (and to some degree subverted) by ‘the European museum’s western-centric yet universalising mission of acquiring, conserving and displaying aesthetic objects as part of the project of constructing nation-states and indeed modernity itself.’

And finally, ‘the wave of state-supported building and renovation of museums and other art institutions underway largely in the Arab Gulf states but also in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Jordan, from which the Palestinian Museum is arguably set apart by virtue of its status as an institution representing a transterritorial and stateless nation.’

As should be obvious from even these brief passages, the essay’s reach extends far beyond the museum itself.

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