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Challenging Censorship in the Middle East

Jegan Vincent De Paul & Alia Farid Abdal


Published in 2A Magazine Issue #13 – Spring 2010

Contemporary museums are no longer merely spaces for the passive viewing of historical artifacts of cultural significance.
Increasingly, the museum’s role as a site of education and cultural engagement is expanding to actively involve the communities they serve. The power of the internet and other network communications technologies has radically changed how societies function, and the progressive museum must keep pace: the power of today’s museum lies not in its ability to store culture, but in its ability to produce, amplify, and transmit knowledge to society via social networks, civic media, and public pedagogical programs.

For Middle Eastern societies, like those in the Region Cooperation Council, where the flow of information is still strongly regulated by governing forces, the abstract notion of museum as knowledge & network is a concept worth exploiting. Do museums have a position on the question of censorship in the Middle East today? To what extent can the contemporary museum, as a place of knowledge production in a highly networked era, challenge resistance to the free flow of changing values and ideas?

Museums in the modern Arab, Islamic world are currently at an intersection of protected nationalism and the desire to integrate into a contemporaneous and global cultural space. The problem of nationalism in this context is intrinsically related to a travesty of identity, whereby the general public adheres to a set of values determined by traditional forces, and the ordinary museum operates intensely as a guardian of this adherence. Here, for the sake of maintaining traditions in the interest of an overprotective state, the museum’s maximum potential to be part of a international discourse and global cultural is suppressed.

As we become increasingly interconnected through the ever-growing world of communications, it is not only an imperative, but a real possibility to form the development of new cultural circuits. The usefulness of this perspective lies in the fact that we are transitioning out of the old industrial economy towards a network economy. [In an agrarian economy, value lies in the earth. In an industrial economy, value lies in the factory. In a network economy, value lies in the relationship.] Collectively relationships form cultural networks, and rooted in the power of collective intelligence is the ability to subvert the ideologies of any state. Success in a network society is positively correlated to the strength and health of cultures where cohesion from openness is encouraged. Where it is not, then the speed of communication must outdo censorship.

Regardless of whether or not the contemporary museum of the Middle East is in a position to address censorship directly, it is increasingly suited to become an institution that transcends the singularity of a nation. As public institutions, museums occupy a unique position that can actively challenge the cultural protectionism of the very authority that is interested in realizing them. Located precisely at the very sites of censorship, the [progressive] museum is obligated to exist as an institution of open knowledge production and transmission. In the Middle East it is absolutely suiting that new museums be imagined and positioned as a set of nodes functioning horizontally in highly vertical societies; as places operating against the oppositional binary of nationalism and internationalism, of inside values and outside ideas, navigating the domain in-between what is censored and what is accessible.

Progressive, future-oriented museums in Middle East –whether built or imagined– can only exist through the aspirations of people today. Until genuine receptivity and criticality are embraced as common values of this society, the realization of social and cultural institutions to advance those values will be shortcoming. Meanwhile, teachings seminal to a culture of change and innovation need to be disseminated through universities programs, workshops, happening and temporal forms of urbanism and public intervention.