Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Down the yellow brick road

By Fayza Hassan

In a bid to develop cultural relations with the countries of the southeastern Mediterranean, the European Union has devised a project devoted to the development of cultural heritage in the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. The project aims at promoting North-South cooperation on the cultural and economic levels by enhancing the landmarks of a shared history.

In past decades, experts in art and archaeology have fretted over the damage which befalls priceless works of art and artifacts displayed to the public. Yet clearly, exhibitions offer favourable economic and mediatic dividends for the host country and represent important opportunities for research projects and scientific studies, often leading to the collaboration of experts and institutions from different parts of the world. On the other hand, drawbacks include the limited duration of exhibitions, their cost, and the high risk of damage incurred in moving the works outside their natural context. Furthermore, a major part of the heritage -- architecture, archeology and environment -- cannot be moved and therefore often remains unknown to those who have not visited the relevant sites.

According to Eva Schubert, author of the Exhibition Trail project and secretary-general of Museum With No Frontiers (MWNF), the NGO implementing it, "MWNF is a non-profit-making NGO which relies a great deal on the enthusiasm and voluntary contribution of highly qualified persons to help enhance understanding and appreciation of our heritage of European and Mediterranean culture." The organisation's programme has been tailored to intensify the positive aspects of traditional exhibitions and will go a long way in promoting cooperation between the various countries involved. "To be able to implement successful political and economic cooperation, it is necessary for all to know each other. Respect is the consequence of knowledge," she says.

The principle of the project is deceptively simple: Instead of collecting objects from different places and moving them to an established venue, it is the visitor who travels to the work of art in its natural environment. In this way, the whole area or country where the project is implemented becomes a venue where monuments, sights and local museums are the exhibits in a long-term cultural event. The idea is to allow the visitor to experience art as a living illustration of history. Just like traditional exhibitions, this new way of "displaying" heritage, called the Exhibition Trail, will be devoted to a specific theme. "While visiting, for example, Islamic art in Tunisia, no Roman monument or sight will be included on the itinerary," says Schubert. "This thematic differentiation allows the historical dimension of a specific period or trend to be emphasised." The grand cycles of the Exhibition Trails are dedicated to Islamic art in the Mediterranean, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the 20th century. Their key aim is to relate each geographical area to a wider Euro-Mediterranean context. Each Exhibition Trail is divided into a certain number of itineraries lasting one or two days and representing the different sections of the exhibition, each focused on a specific aspect of the global theme.

Open-air museum photo: Yves Paris
The project is based principally on the production of a catalogue to be purchased by the visitor to the Exhibition Trail. Between now and 2003, it will be distributed in bookshops, museums and other MWNF sales points. "Besides a detailed description of the displayed works of art, which will be signposted and identified according to the standardised MWNF methodology, the catalogue will offer practical information facilitating the preparation and planning of the visit. At the beginning of each itinerary, a MWNF Information Point provides the visitor with practical information on guided tours, tourism infrastructure and other cultural activities in the locations included on the Exhibition Trail, as well as offering the possibility of viewing the MWNF programmes in other countries via CD-ROM presentations," explains Schubert.

A popular Egyptian saying mocks those who "sell water in the Water-Carriers' Alley", and, while this may not be the case for the MWNF project, it is difficult to see what exactly is on offer. Those who follow the Exhibition Trail do not benefit from reduced rates, special accommodations, transportation, a guide, or any of the other amenities tourists (and even travellers) have come to regard as an integral part of the dépaysement experience. The launching of the catalogue and the CD-ROM for each trail is customarily accompanied by a ceremony similar to those organised to mark the opening of the exhibition. But no effort, obviously, has been applied to gather pieces together, or even to restore existing artifacts (although a restoration project is rumoured to be in the works). So the Museum With No Frontiers is, it would seem, a museum with no museum.

The theme addressed by this Exhibition Trail is Islamic Art in the Mediterranean and involves Jordan, Israel, Tunisia, Algeria, Italy, Portugal, Spain (Catalonia and Andalusia), Turkey, Egypt, Palestine and Morocco. The various periods chosen, according to the authors of the programme, illustrate the most typical aspects of the cultural heritage of each of these countries. Like many Euro-Med Partnership projects, this one seeks to integrate Israel into the region and the Islamic heritage, if not in practical then at least in conceptual terms. The Israel portion of the trail is thus entitled "Sharing the Sacred", and covers sites in Jerusalem; Acre and its environs; Upper Galilee and the Sea of Galilee; Beit She'an Valley and the Jordan Valley; the "Judean Mountains" and the coastal plains; and the coastline. "The Israeli Exhibition Trail illustrates the uniqueness of the Holy Land as a place where civilisations, though at war, maintained a cultural exchange nevertheless. The remains and monuments of Islamic art in Palestine attest to the Islamic capacity to accept and absorb the legacy of Byzantium. The Exhibition Trail will show unique traces of cultural continuity intermixed with manifestations of originality, illustrating Islamic respect for the non-Islamic past, combined with the commendable ability to move with the times," states the MWNF's October 1998 magazine.

The Exhibition Trail for Egypt project is headed by Enaam Selim, undersecretary of state for International Organisations and Media at the Ministry of Culture, and supported by the European Commission, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Centre (RITSEC) is the MWNF partner responsible for new technology development. The Egyptian section of the Exhibition Trail will be inaugurated in the autumn of 2000, and includes the following itineraries, associated with the Mameluke period (1250-1517): the seat of the sultanate: the Citadel and its surroundings; the procession of the sultan; sites and scientists; celebrating the flooding of the Nile; the markets; gateways to the West: Alexandria and Rosetta; the Nile and trade: the city of Fuwa.

Visitors to Egypt who choose to follow this trail will have the opportunity to leave the beaten tourist track, and a chance to explore very different facets of the country's architectural, cultural and artistic heritage. It is too soon to predict the success of such an ambitious endeavour, however, except by comparison with other locations, such as Portugal and Italy, where it is operational and, according to Schubert, already flourishing. Obvious pitfalls will necessary lie in the market targeted, in terms of interest generated and numbers attracted, the quality of the catalogues and their translations, the assistance available and the final cost to the tourist, who at present benefits from the relatively low rates established for group tours. Ultimately, if it results in the production of an informative catalogue and CD-ROM to accompany the visitor on his or her lonely voyage, the MWNF project will be of great benefit to those who seek above all to avoid the cattle-ranch atmosphere of many cut-rate tourist packages. It remains, however, eminently a product of its era -- an era in which self-help is the order of the day.

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