Investigating the Catalogues of the National Museum of Damascus
By Sophie Arni
Published on October 28, 2020
Published on the occasion of the centennial of the foundation of the Damascus National Museum (1919-2019), Prefaces to a Book for a Syrian Museum is a collection of prefaces of the museum’s catalogues spanning eighty years of its curatorial history. Edited by Mathilde Ayoub, curator and researcher at the Institut National du Patrimoine, with contributions from Michel Al-Maqdissi and Salam Kawakibi, Prefaces was published by Zamân Books & Curating in a trilingual edition (French, English and Arabic) earlier this month, and is the product of years of in-depth research and archival labor.
The Damascus National Museum temporary closed from 2012 to 2018 as a result of the ongoing Syrian civil war. Yet the museum boasts one of the most significant archaeological collections in the world, and has served many roles for the Damascene art scene throughout its century-long history. Prefaces draws subtle conclusions about the museum’s role as a vessel for the transmission of cultural heritage and tradition amidst Syria’s turbulent modern history.
Prefaces highlights the importance of museum catalogues towards the formulation of a research agenda. Described as a “re-edited palimpsest,” Prefaces presents the museum’s history through annotated prefaces and archival documents. It documents the different incarnations of the museum across the numerous political regimes and shifts which have marked modern Syrian history.
Described as a “re-edited palimpsest,” Prefaces presents the museum’s history through annotated prefaces and archival documents.
Presented in chronological order, the various featured prefaces offer readers the opportunity to discern the different periods marking the museum’s shifts in curatorial perspectives across the decades since its inception. The idea of compilation and collection, to be sure, is central to the curatorial vocation. However, applying this systematic approach to the prefaces of museum catalogues is a heretofore unexplored endeavor.
The idea of compilation and collection, to be sure, is central to the curatorial vocation. However, applying this systematic approach to the prefaces of museum catalogues is a heretofore unexplored endeavor.
Ayoub first discovered the existence of the museum’s catalogue from an edition published in 1969 in a flea market in Buenos Aires. This prompted her to start researching available prefaces from all previously published catalogues, much like a curatorial exercise of exhibition-making. She accessed prefaces dating from 1919, the date of museum’s foundation, to 2019, and compiled them under this book-collection. Ayoub views each preface as “evidence,” or “exhibits” from which she subtly crafts an overall narrative for the museum’s century-long history. “How does the history of a museum emerge from texts that it itself produced?” she asks.
“How does the history of a museum emerge from texts that it itself produced?”
- Mathilde Ayoub
“This book project started as a quest, but quickly became a full-on investigation.” Ayoub started to collect seemingly minor traces of the museum’s history, such as postcards and stamps. Through these exhibits, she could trace a richer vision of the museum’s evolution through the decades, one that more closely reflected the museum’s impact on its Damascene audience.
“The catalogues have left traces behind,” explains Ayoub. The one-to-two pages prefaces are short and standardized, which allows for detailed comparisons and analyses. “We can discern variations between the prefaces, an evolution in the curatorial speech.”
“Before Syrian independence, we can sense a “civilizational” necessity for the museum and the archeological artifacts it hosts. After the 1950s, the museum served more as a bridge between the Syrian population and their shared cultural heritage. The preface published in 1969, after the 1967 war, suggests the museum shifted towards a protectionist role, one of an educator for the postwar generation. The following prefaces have a more official, institutional tone, with an emphasis on showing cultural activity throughout Syria and not just in the capital.”
“This book project started as a quest, but quickly became a full-on investigation.”
- Mathilde Ayoub
The totality of the archive includes overlapping thematic elements. To begin with, as one might expect, a common theme includes the glorification of Syrian history and Syrian heritage. But some ideas put forward in the prefaces are much more nuanced and relevant to today’s context.
Ayoub describes a strong anti-colonial sentiment found in-between the lines of the prefaces. The museum’s leadership was indeed trying to distance itself from the French mandate, and this continued to reverberate even after Syria’s independence. There is a certain reticence from the museum’s chief curators towards the French mandate, an example of which is the publication of the first museum catalogue in 1931, which, incidentally named the museum the “first museum of a state under mandate” when in fact the mandate had been declared a full 11 years earlier in 1920.
There is also the ever-relevant question of repatriation. The museum’s catalogue prefaces throughout the past century have repeatedly dealt with the issues of looted Syrian heritage. “This issue is still facing the museum to this day,” describes Ayoub. An additional theme is the notable omission of any mention of the museum’s modern art collections which documents Syria’s journey towards independence and its arrival at its contemporary situation.
The museum occupies a special position in the nascent Syrian national consciousness for many reasons. Certainly not least among them is the support the museum gave to Damascene artistic community. “The museum does not just comprise of exhibition halls,” Ayoub explains. It had a library and a large conference room welcoming concerts and poetry recitals. In 1971, the “Congrès de Damas” was held in that same room, which gave rise to the Union of Panarab Artists. The efforts of the museum to engage younger generations of artists and create cross-generational dialogues was also felt with the collaboration with Fares Helou, Syrian actor, who invited many regional and international artist to exhibit in the museum gardens.
Even though the National Museum of Damascus reopened in 2018, its future remains uncertain. Ayoub shares that this book does not have “any oracle value” for the future of the museum. But she also shares more about the critical role of the institution in protecting Syrian heritage. “We have to draw attention to the critical state of Syrian cultural heritage, without attracting bad faith. Many important antiquities from Palmyra are currently under restoration inside the museum.”
“We have to draw attention to the critical state of Syrian cultural heritage, without attracting bad faith.”
One cannot help but ask what kind of Syria will emerge from the rubble of its more recent history and how the museum will, in exercising its vocation of archiving Syria’s history, propose the tentative prospect of a future.
Prefaces to a Book for a Syrian Museum
Edited by Mathilde Ayoub
Texts by Mathilde Ayoub, Michel Al-Maqdissi, Salam Kawakibi
Graphic design by Tom&Delhia
Photographs: Maxime Leyvastre
All images are courtesy of Zaman Books & Curating
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Trilingual edition: French, Arabic, English, 24,00€
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