Exhibitions as Communications Tools

By Julianna Whalen

Museums and exhibitions communicate cultural messages that go beyond the art and artifacts that are displayed. Western exhibitions of Middle Eastern and North African cultural heritage speak to history, ownership, and agency. These displays of artifacts from other cultures have stirred controversy and criticisms.

Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.
Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.

American archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (“King Tut”) on a British funded expedition to Egypt. The tomb of the young pharaoh escaped looting in antiquity, leaving it filled to the brim with precious artifacts. Tensions rose over ownership rights: were the findings Egypt’s property or the world’s property, as part of a shared global history?

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0

Fifty-five tomb artifacts journeyed to the United States in the 1970s as part of a traveling exhibition that communicated the tomb’s objects as golden universal art, rather than artifacts with historical significance1. The rhetoric and display tactics utilized by American museums on Tutankhamun’s treasures lacked any form of homage paid to their African-ness.2

The Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to backlash with a short publication titled “Tutankhamun and the African Heritage”.3 Despite uncomfortable questions and closed-minded narratives surrounding exhibition tactics, Americans embraced “Tutmania” in popular culture, ranging from t-shirts to Saturday Night Live skits.  

In 2013, the British Museum opened a pop-up exhibition titled Modern Egypt in Cairo. Displayed objects from the 20th and 21st centuries included a sewing machine decorated with Arabic script and a picture of Nefertiti.4 The British Museum later installed the same objects as a one-case-exhibition in their Egyptian galleries.5 Modern Egypt confronted the “what is Egypt?” question that emerged due to the original American Tutankhamun exhibition. The Modern Egypt exhibition also represented contemporary Egypt, as a way for the British Museum to avoid framing Egypt solely in a historical sense (with objects collected during British colonial rule).

It must be considered whether the British Museum is actually concerned about contemporary Egypt or if they are just looking to make themselves look better; the British Museum continues to display the Rosetta Stone despite Egyptian museum officials asking for its return for display in the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM).6 

Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen
Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen

Other western exhibitions have discussed the contemporary Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through the lens of cultural heritage preservation and destruction. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq at the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) included artifacts from their collection and contributions from the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries. Contemporary art by Syrian-born Issam Kourbaj spoke to the Syrian refugee crisis.7 Video clips throughout the exhibition contrasted ISIS destruction with preservation efforts. The exhibition’s curatorial choices were shaped by a collaboration between archaeologists, curators, and cultural heritage preservation specialists from the United States and Syria.  

Damascus Opera House, 2010. 
Photo by Bernard Gagnon. CC BY-SA 3.0

Cultural heritage preservation has also been a focus of exhibitions within Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. In Syria, looted artifacts were displayed at the Damascus opera house in October 2018. The artifacts included in the exhibition spanned all of Syria’s history. While the exhibition featured hundreds of artifacts, more than 9,000 have been recovered after being looted.8 Chief of antiquities Mahmoud Hamoud reports that there are still thousands of missing archaeological pieces.9 The nature of the exhibition speaks to the ongoing process to recover Syria’s cultural heritage. 

Museums across Syria and Iraq that closed to protect their precious artifacts are beginning to reopen. The Mosul Museum hosted Return to Mosul, a five-day contemporary art exhibition, proving that “war didn’t kill Mosul and that, on the contrary, it’s living a full-on renaissance”.10 Twenty-nine artists’ works were featured in Return to Mosul, including Marwan Fathi, Hawkar Riskin, and Ahmed Mozahem. People around the world can walk through the exhibition via Google Arts & Culture; this curatorial choice communicates concern and awareness regarding accessibility. 

The National Library and Archives of Egypt reopened in 2019 after sustaining significant damage from a 2014 car bomb blast targeting the nearby Cairo Police Headquarters.11 Egyptian graphic designers Ghada Wali and Dalia Hassan Bahig rebranded the library in collaboration the reopening. Choices made in the rebranding process focused on contemporizing and increasing accessibility to the library’s collections. The rebranding project occurred under the Thesaurus Islamicus foundation and Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya Manuscript project.12 

The messages communicated by exhibitions can be explicit or implicit. Regardless of the way in which statements are conveyed, exhibitions of art and artifacts around the world have expressed messages about race, war, preservation, and destruction in the Middle East and North Africa. 

  1. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 82-83. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  2. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 90-91. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Collecting Modern Egypt and Modern Egypt: On Objects that Represent the World 
  5. Collecting Modern Egypt 
  6. Egyptian Museum Calls for Rosetta Stone to be Returned from UK after 200 Years 
  7. Issam Kourbaj: About 
  8. Syria’s Recovered Antiquities Go on Display at Damascus Opera 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  11. Graphic Designer Ghada Wali Rebrands The National Library of Egypt 
  12. Ibid.