Museology, the hard way

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Now is the time for an American museum to stage an exhibit on the accomplishments, importance and majesty of the countries and cultures of Islam. (I don’t mean a permanent exhibit. The LA County Museum has one of those. I mean a temporary exhibit, the kind that gets lots of attention in the press.)

Huh? What a tremendously bad idea! Just about everyone would get on their high horse. The museum who dared such an exhibit would be pummeled with bad publicity, vilified by Mr. O’Really, and lose its funding for the next 100 years. It would be accused of giving comfort to the enemy in time of war.

But there are two good reasons for such an exhibit. The first is that it would be just plain interesting. The Islamic tradition and influence are extraordinary. (It is hard to imagine the Western Renaissance without the participation of the Islamic world from and through which classical texts were recovered.) How could such an exhibit fail to be interesting?

But we are not the “designated” audience for such an exhibit. The real audience is the countries and cultures of Islam. We want to make this exhibit something like an olive brand, a gesture of recognition, and a claim to solidarity. The designated audience is the moderates of the Islamic world.

The contest between the West and terror will turn, to some extent, on a second contest, the relationship between extremists and moderates in the Middle East. And the moderates are losing. Anti-American sentiment is deeply entrenched. There is a prevailing view that Americans and the West are hostile not just to the prevailing regimes but to the very idea of Islam. In this environment, the moderates have a difficult time standing their ground. In this “climate” of opinion, advantage tends to go to the extremists.

One order of business is to reach out to the moderates. As Thomas Friedman says, “We can train all the police we want in Iraq or around the Arab world, but unless we can strengthen moderates there — those ready to act on the hopes of the intimidated majorities — a decent future will be impossible.” How can we enlist moderates if they suspect we do not respect them?

Museum exhibits have a funny way of reaching out. We are inclined to say, “oh, right, a museum. Like that matters.” But there is something official, substantial, unmistakable about an exhibit. This is why nations use them with some frequency to “send messages” to friends and enemies abroad. Statements from a presidential press conference, white papers from think tanks, magazine articles, all of these have their place and their effect. But nothing says something quite like an exhibit. Nothing says “respect” quite like this.


Friedman, Thomas. 2003. Wanted: Fanatical Moderates. New York Times. November 16, 2003.

Pachios, Harold C. (Chairman, Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy,) 2002. The New Diplomacy: Remarks to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, April 24, 2002 here

Schneider, Cynthia P. (U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands 1998 to 2001). 2000. Art, Culture, and Diplomacy: Three Links on the Chain of Greater Understanding. Educating in Paradise Symposium, Florence, Italy Palazzo Vecchio Salone dei Cinquecento, October 5th, 2000. here

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2004. Cover Story: Can Islam Change? New Statesman. September 13, 2004 here (with tip of the hat to Arts and Letters Daily here)

Permanent exhibit at the LA County Museum on Islamic art here

Quotes of interest:

Pachios (on the importance of Public Diplomacy, as above)

“Americans have become painfully aware of the lack of understanding—indeed, misunderstanding—between our world and the Arab world; between our world and much of the Islamic world.”

Senator William Fulbright (in Schneider, as above):

“The vital mortar to seal the bricks of world order is education across international borders, not with the expectation that the knowledge would make us love each other, but in the hope that it would encourage empathy between nations, and foster the emergence of leaders whose sense of other nations and cultures would enable them to share specific policies based on tolerance and rational restraint.”

3 thoughts on “Museology, the hard way

  1. Lee

    “Moderate Islam” is a fiction of the West’s so called intellectuals, who are pale creatures so full of themselves they are actually empty and barren.

  2. amoeda

    Ralph Appelbaum has said (and I paraphrase) that museums are where take our visitors and our children to show them the best of what our culture has to offer. As an exhibit designer, I like this comment because it speaks to the way museums can be at once enlightening and patronizing. Since 9/11, we’ve heard a lot of commentary about how a hate-filled terrorist minority have hijacked a noble and beautiful faith. While I believe this is true, it would make a patronizing premise for an exhibit and I doubt it would play well with Islamists. A bridge-building exhibit about Islam would have to go beyond mosaics, mathematics and architecture and bring people inside a world that includes tendencies that Westerners like me regard as hierarchical, anti-enlightenment and anti-democratic. It might not have to be reverent about that world, but it would have to dialogue with it. In doing so, it might say something important and inviting about “moderation” in an Islamic context.

  3. Grant

    Lee, if you are right, we are really in trouble. Thanks, Grant

    Amoeda, Very well said. No one wants another patronizing museum exhibit. That truly is the old order of museology. But I believe unless we show the Islamic world that we respect their accomplishments they will be loathe to make a transition to the thing we find “hierarchical, anti-enlightenment, and anti-democratic” (to use your phrase, with which I wholeheartedly agree). In the language of the Austin Powers movies we have to “throw them a bone.” Thanks for a great and thoughtful post, Grant

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