Academic journal article Arena Journal

Traditionalizing the Modern: Tunisia's Living Museums

Academic journal article Arena Journal

Traditionalizing the Modern: Tunisia's Living Museums

Article excerpt

If modernity represents both a rupture with the past and a culmination of all previous history at the same time, if modernity constantly reorganizes the world to reflect the reality it creates, no other institution embodies that phenomenon better than the public museum, whose main purpose since its creation in the late eighteenth century has been to organize and represent time, progress and history.1 Because of its involvement with art, a key concept in the shaping of the Enlightenment project, the gallery has often been considered as the perfect embodiment of modernity, whilst other museum forms, dedicated to history, folklore, anatomy or ethnography, have been imagined as being opposed to it, looking backwards, towards indefinite or ancient times. This was the argument defended by Mieke Bal.2 Yet as Tony Bennett riposted in his postscript to Pasts Beyond Memory, all museums are modern, for their modernity does not emanate from the content of what they exhibit or the era on display but from their very institutional features.3 Designed to recount the history of empires and modern nation-states, museums position objects of culture, science and art in an evolutionary storyline. The museum's success relies on its ingenious ability to make visitors perform the evolution of civilization as they follow the exhibition. Thus, whilst museums of natural science, archaeology, ethnography and history display remains, cultural artefacts and species from 'pre-modern' times and, as such, appear to be looking away from progress, in reality, as Bennett explains, they constantly work to remind us of our modern condition by cleverly placing our modern selves at their logical conclusion.4 In so doing, museums operate as 'a means of balancing the tensions of modernity ... they [museums] generate and regulate both how, and how far, we are detached from the past and pointed towards the future'.5 In other words, being at the interface between past and present, museums ineluctably help to naturalize our modern condition. Whilst this has been increasingly acknowledged in the case of Western museums, the bulk of literature on museums in postcolonial countries has mainly focused on revealing the role that museums have played in forging a national past for newly independent countries. Equally important and yet overwhelmingly overlooked has been their involvement with the project of modernity, especially their responsibility in mediating the present and possibly building the future.6

Museums of popular arts and traditions (MOPATs) in Tunisia have played precisely this role. Specializing in the display of vernacular culture, these institutions were created after independence but originated during the French Protectorate (1881-1956). This essay aims to examine the evolution of the complex relationship these museums and their collections developed with particular understandings of modernity according to the political, social and cultural circumstances of Tunisia before and after independence. I argue that both colonial and postcolonial museums, regardless of time and context, were, each in their own way, sites deeply involved in staging the tensions existing between modernity and tradition. Whilst the colonial museum aimed at modernizing 'the traditional', MOPATs were all about traditionalizing 'the modern'. They acted as 'antechambers' of modernity where Tunisians could retreat to find reconciliation between past and present, resulting in the making of 'authentic' Tunisian traditions and a new conception of modernity, à la tunisienne.

The Beginning of Museums in Tunisia

Museums in Tunisia emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when the country was part of the Ottoman Empire. Their origin coincided with the growing economic, political and cultural penetration of the French into the region but also the increasing interest Frencheducated Ottoman rulers demonstrated for the art of collecting historical artefacts, alongside growing curiosity for antiquity and archaeology more broadly. …

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