You may have seen it on your social media feed or in the news. On August 30th until September 4th 2017 it is Hajj. For those of you who do not know what Hajj entails. Here is a real quick summary: Every year Muslims go to Mecca on a pilgrimage. This is a mandatory religious duty for all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable, it is one of the five pillars of Islam. The state of a person who is capable of performing the Hajj is called istita’ah, and the ones who fulfills the pilgrimage is called a mustati. The Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people, and their submission to Allah. The word Hajj means “to intend a journey”, which connotes both the outward act of a journey and the inward act of intentions. The Ka’bah is the most sacred shrine in Islam and the pilgrims walk around the shrine, this is called tawaf.
Mecca is known as a place of mystique, you are only allowed to enter if you are a Muslim. A few years ago there was an exhibition in the Dutch National Museum of Ethnography in Leiden. During my Master we were assigned to write a paper on the exhibition and this blog is an adaption thereof. Coincidentally the exhibition, or part thereof is back in the museum on display until January 2018. This blog give some insights into the way we, as an audience, get glimpses of worlds we otherwise are prohibited to see or visit. The museum then becomes a space, a looking glass if you will, to another world and culture.
When I entered the Longing for Mecca exhibition the first thing that caught my eye was the white veil with projected Qur’an verses in the centre of the room. The second was the immensity of sounds around me, which was kind of distracting my thinking. Later this made more sense to me, as I came into the last room of the exhibition in which it was all quiet. I think the loud noises in the beginning of the exhibition represent the stress and anxiety people may feel in their everyday lives, and the quiet room represents the illumination Muslims feel when they have completed Hajj.
When I read the first text I kept lingering on the sentence: ”Mecca is a city that is only open to Muslim believers and has grown into a mysterious phenomenon”. My first reaction was: if Mecca is so mysterious and only open to Muslim believers, why am I, and other non-Muslim visitors of the museum, able to see and learn about Mecca?
The word ‘mysterious’ creates, in my opinion, an expectation of something that is unknown and a secret. By taking this with me during the exhibit I felt like I was witnessing something I was only allowed to see in this specific setting.
The white veil in the beginning of the exhibition illustrates this ‘mysterious phenomenon’ in my opinion. The veil is white and see through, but you cannot see completely through it. This creates a certain mysterious element to it. The veil can also be seen as a metaphor for the hijab or niqaab, because of the projected Qur’an verses.
I remembered Prof. Dr. Ter Keurs tell us in his lecture in the museum, that in the Netherlands the Muslim population is often (still) seen as ‘the other’ (see Said 1978). My initial thought when hearing this was that the museum was trying to ‘unveil’ the mystery of Mecca. And at the same time also of Islam for its visitors who may or may not be familiar with the religion. By doing this the museum may be trying to move away from the idea of Islam and Muslims as the ‘the other’.
Hereby the museum tries to be a “signifier of a shift from cult to culture” (Flood 2002: 652).
However, by using the word ‘mysterious’ and stating that Mecca is also a phenomenon, the idea of Islam, and therefore also Dutch Muslims, as ‘the other’ or as a cult rather than a culture, stays intact.
As you walk around the first room you can see video installations on which interviews are being screened. These enable the visitor to see emotions and hear stories through interviews with Muslims who are going or already went on Hajj. These people represent, in a way, different faces of the Dutch Muslim community. They have similar narratives and can make Islam and Hajj (more) tangible than solely looking at images and objects, but at the same time these interviews all contain longings for Mecca, that mysterious phenomenon as the museum states.
Another interesting aspect of ‘unveiling’ the mystery was, for me, the second room which had an infographic in blue, white and grey on the walls. The information on the walls contained a series of statistics about the Hajj: how many people went there by year, how many animals were sacrificed, how many people needed medical assistance, what the costs are for going on Hajj, etcetera. I thought the stated facts were there for making the visitor aware of the political economy and complicated logistics that are associated with Hajj. By using solely texts and numbers and less images, the political economy and complicated logistics leave a lot to the imagination of the visitor. In a way the museum invites the visitor to not only look, but also to imagine the journey to Mecca. For example, I imagined what kind of medical assistance was needed and how and where the sacrifices took place, but these imaginations of mine were not answered in the remaining areas of the exhibition. This leaves it in my own imagination and thereby also creates a mystery around the statistics on the walls.
The statistics give numbers, percentages and little text which implicates a transparent picture of the Hajj. However, they are maybe also relying on the material artifacts in the glass vitrines in the middle of the room. These artifacts also unveil aspects of the Hajj, for example the text and audio-visual guidelines which were displayed, but also how a visa looks like and what kind of compasses are used. Moreover you cannot actually see what is written or shown in these guidelines and can therefore not know all of what is in fact necessary for the preparations of going on Hajj. Again, you can only imagine it.
To come back at the issue of Muslims being ‘the other’ in Dutch society, I thought these numbers were put out there, like the interviews, to create a bridge between non-Muslims and Muslims in the Netherlands. In the interviews this was done through the showing of emotional stories and with the numbers by stating ‘hard facts’ which imply a certain transparency but also determination and a strong affection of the believers in Islam. However, because a lot is left to the visitors’ imagination, the ‘otherness’ is still not gone. Another image I found striking in this room was the enormous wall picture of children running around a miniature Ka’bah. This image was, to me, interesting because I did research in Indonesia about children and visual culture and thought by seeing this picture immediately about the possible position of children to bring people together: in this case non-Muslims and Muslims.
If the museum is trying to transform the material artifacts and religious objects into art, do the objects become art because they are displayed in a museum, or in this case are the objects representations of the religion of Islam which is portrayed as a culture? I think they are in this case, both.
“The institution of the museum, no less than the objects it houses is, a culturally constructed artifact, a product of a particular cultural attitude toward the past.” (Flood 2002: 652)
I think this statement of Flood illustrates the museums possible intention of the exhibition, they wanted to show the interrelationship between the Netherlands and Islam which has a long history, but has never been exhibited in this fashion. This interrelationship between the religion and the Netherlands becomes visual through the interviews on the screens, but also through the statistics on the walls (how many Dutch people went on Hajj and from what ethnic background they are) and the routes they take to Mecca. It also invites Dutch Muslims who may or may not ever been into a museum to go to the museum to see about their religion.
During a lecture I attended, Flood talked about technology being the enabler of the realization of reproduction (of sacred objects and images) and that with these reproductions, like the sacred sandal image, the reproduction itself becomes sacred. Seeing that I am not focused here on a particular image and can therefore not use Flood’s argument about reproductions of sacred images, I would like to connect the argument of technology being an enabler for something else here. Technology is used every more often in musea to engage its visitors with the artifacts displayed, give more background information and also possibly to relate more to the visitors everyday worlds. In the Hajj exhibition there was also a game the visitor could play during their visit. This game could also be, in my opinion, a bridge between non-Muslims and Muslims, because it enables the visitor to learn about ‘the other’ culture and religion. However, I spoke to a visitor, because I thought she had lost her ticket, and she said “oh, so the game is like a pop quiz to see if you understood the information here correctly”. It seemed that she did not quite enjoyed the idea of being quizzed in a museum.
Another aspect of technology in the museum, besides the interviews on the screens, is the room in which you are visually in Mecca through the panoramic film projection on the walls. By using this kind of technology, and combining this with loud audio, the visitor gets an idea of the immensity of people who are completing their Hajj. By making this visual in film, rather than in pictures, it becomes more impressive. The different technologies used in the exhibition: the screens, projections and the infographic, contribute the most for building a bridge between two ‘others’, while the material objects themselves leaves much to the imagination of the visitor.
The Longing for Mecca exhibition succeeds in parts of moving away from the idea that the Dutch Muslims are ‘the other’ in Dutch society, by visualizing and personalizing one of the most important duties a Muslim is acquired to do. By using different technologies the personalization of the longing for Mecca becomes visual and by displaying different kinds of material artifacts from the religion as well as personal artifacts (souvenirs) of Muslims themselves, the longing becomes more understandable and tangible for its visitors who may have little knowledge about it.
However, I do think that stating that Mecca is a “mysterious phenomenon” creates another dimension of looking, as being a voyeur in someplace you are not allowed to be. This contradicts the idea of the interrelationship of Islam in Dutch society and exemplifies the idea of ‘otherness’. This could also be extended to other artifacts or exhibitions which promise to give a glimpse into the ‘ unknown’ or ‘ mystique’.
Musea have the ability and power to bring people, cultures, together and create a space in which visitors can engage in dialogues, explore worlds outside their own and get inspired by the diversity the world has to offer. The exhibition Longing for Mecca certainly offers that for its (Dutch) visitors. However a question should also be: how do you get people to go to musea who are not interested in the ‘other’?
*I do not own any of the used photographs*
– Finbarr Barry Flood (2002) “Between cult and culture: Bamiyan, Islamic iconoclasm, and the museum—Afghanistan” in Art Bulletin 84: 4, pp. 641- 659.
– Finbarr Barry Flood (2013) “Inciting Modernity? Images, Alterities, and the Contexts of “Cartoon Wars” in Patricia Spyer and Mary Margaret Steedly, eds. Images That Move.
– Said, E. (1978) “Orientalism” .