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Culture | A museum without borders

The Palestinian Museum’s first exhibit opens in Beirut, Lebanon

Tucked away on a shady street in downtown Beirut is Dar el Nimer, a relatively spacious inconspicuous exhibition space in the heart of the bustling district of Hamra. I get a welcome respite from the heat as I step in and am immediately greeted with a smile by the manager. I am pleasantly surprised by the layout of the space; dresses hang all around from the ceiling. “As a form of material history, embroidery sensitively reflects the social and political landscape in which it is produced,” reads the opening description, penned by Rachel Dedman, curator of “At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery” – The Palestinian Museum’s first exhibit outside of Birzeit, Palestine, where it is located.

The exhibit flows chronologically: the outfits are arranged according to the year in which they were manufactured, and the audience follows a timeline of Palestinian history along the wall, starting from the late 19th century to today. “There are over 200 pieces in the show,” says Dedman, in a phone interview with The Daily. The exhibit was commissioned by The Palestinian Museum, which was inaugurated without an exhibit earlier this year.

[Each] colour and each motif on the dress is specific to a certain class, region, village, or occasion.

Despite the number of items on display, the space doesn’t feel crowded. On the contrary, Dedman shows an eye for detail all throughout, from the dresses that are exhibited inside-out, to the tables of old photographs (sourced from The Palestinian Museum and the Institute for Palestine Studies, among others) that are paired with some of the dresses. “I wanted to use [the exhibit] as an opportunity to shed new light on materials that are traditional, familiar, something many people know and have relationships to here, and use this as a chance to both explore embroidery’s rich history, but also to reflect on its contemporary significance and dynamic political life,” continues Dedman.

“As a form of material history, embroidery sensitively reflects the social and political landscape in which it is produced.”

The viewer must examine the embroidery up-close to really get a feel of the work that goes into them. The needlework is absolutely stunning; until contemporary times it was all handmade. Now mass-production is outsourced to garment factories in East Asia, outside of historically Palestinian diasporic and refugee spaces. Along with the dresses and photographs, the exhibit also features posters drawn from different archives, and short films, produced by Maeve Brennan and Rachel Dedman and commissioned by The Palestinian Museum. The short films are particularly intriguing, as they showcase the art of Palestinian embroidery from the point-of-view of long-time women embroiderers. As the short films explain, each colour and each motif on the dress is specific to a certain class, region, village, or occasion. For example, the usage of pinks and purples in the embroidery is emblematic of Gaza.

Making the main short film for the exhibit, “The Embroiderers,” also saw Dedman and her colleague Maeve Brennan travel all over Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, interviewing over sixty Palestinians who still embroider today. “It’s their voices that we want to really include and to be a key part of this audience, because of course these are not communities that are usually engaged with in museum spaces.”

“I wanted to […] use this as a chance to both explore embroidery’s rich history, but also to reflect on its contemporary significance and dynamic political life.”

The political aspect of the show does not escape the audience either. The chronology of the exhibit is interrupted by the descriptions printed on the walls highlighting major events in Palestinian history, such as the Nakba of 1948 (wherein around 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their land by Zionist militias), and the First Intifada, or mass popular uprising, of 1987, and their consequences on Palestinian embroidery. For example, the Nakba diluted the geographical specificity of the craft, as women from different villages were forced together in unified refugee camps. It also made the traditional materials for embroidery hard to procure. The “New Dress,” as Dedman calls it, is thus characterized by the use of experimental colours and motifs, not necessarily restricted to one region or class. The First Intifada found women embroidering Palestinian nationalist motifs, such as pictures of the Dome of the Rock or the Palestinian flag, directly onto their dresses in defiance.

Engaging Palestinian refugee and diasporic communities was an integral part of the exhibit for Dedman and her colleagues.

“Part of the idea of doing this show in Beirut is to get the opportunity to connect with and engage Palestinian diasporic and refugee communities here in Lebanon […] and to bring Palestinian culture into the spotlight in Beirut,” adds Dedman. Transporting some of the clothes from Amman, Jordan, was a challenge, Dedman admits, as the dresses are not only physically sensitive and delicate, but are also politically sensitive. “The one thing for us that we thought about is how the items should be labeled when they were coming into the country: what might it mean to label them ’Palestinian culture’ or ‘Palestinian heritage’ for Lebanese customs?” In the end the items were labeled as Jordanian/Arab heritage, a label that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows at customs.

Engaging Palestinian refugee and diasporic communities was an integral part of the exhibit for Dedman and her colleagues. Lebanon (a country of roughly 4.4 million) is home to around 450,000 Palestinians, most of them families whose grandparents were uprooted from Palestine after the Nakba of 1948 and fled north of the border. “We built relationships with them, they came to the opening, we ran a big family day for them,” Dedman adds, “they came [to the exhibit] with all their friends and family from the [refugee] camps.”

The Palestinian Museum

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The Palestinian Museum was inaugurated earlier this year on May 18 in Birzeit, Palestine (outside of Jerusalem). However, the museum caused quite a stir online when it opened without an internal exhibit. Technically, “At the Seams” is both the museum’s first exhibit, and its first outside of Palestine. For Dedman, who was commissioned to curate this exhibition, the idea of an exhibit-less space is not shocking, “a museum is much more than what goes into it,” she says on the phone. “At a time when Palestine is a nation without established sovereignty, which is under occupation, existing in the context of apartheid, this kind of space is fundamental in simply being there as an articulation of presence, endurance and existence.”

[The] boundaries of The Palestinian Museum stretch far beyond historical Palestine, to reach Palestinian refugee and diasporic communities in the Middle East, and abroad.

The museum exists in a perpetual conundrum: many Palestinians cannot even travel to see the museum. The mobility of Palestinians is severely limited within the West Bank, as well as to and from Israel proper due the Israeli occupation. It is also almost impossible for Palestinians living in Gaza to leave due to the ongoing blockade there. As a result, most of the museum’s activities, according to Dedman, are to dematerialize exhibits – in other words, to go beyond the limited physical/spatial capacities typically associated with museum spaces, and focus largely on capacity-building, skill-sharing workshops, and archival practices.

One of the museum’s ongoing archival projects, called “The Family Album,” which Dedman borrowed from for “At the Seams,” invites Palestinians from all over the world to submit old family photographs. The museum digitizes these photographs, and, according to Dedman, creates an archive of personal photographs that differs from ones taken by Orientalists travelling around the region. The museum also works to connect different archives across historical Palestine, an important project that stands in the face of continued Israeli erasure of Palestinian archives and histories.

“At a time when Palestine is a nation […] existing in the context of apartheid, this kind of space is fundamental […] as an articulation of presence, endurance and existence.”

The physical space of the museum itself is quite stunning. Perched on a hilltop, the main building is surrounded by terraced gardens populated with many plants native to Palestine. “The architecture of the building, designed by the firm of Heneghan Peng [based in Dublin, Ireland], has been done with the aim of looking out and thinking about and connecting with land, space and territory,” Dedman recalls of her visit to the site.

The Palestinian Museum really is borderless, and “At the Seams” brings that to the fore. Rather than imagining a rigid exhibition space, the boundaries of The Palestinian Museum stretch far beyond historical Palestine, to reach Palestinian refugee and diasporic communities in the Middle East, and abroad. Towards the end of the conversation with The Daily, Dedman reasserts this fact. “For me,” she says, “what the space represents is a reminder of what museums can do at their heart, which is to challenge, or to push against, existential threats.”