Curator The Museum Journal Vol. 46, No. 3 July 2003
An Editorial Note
by Kay Larson
Managing Editor

Cover: A lane in the old Mellah of Azemmour, just south of Casablanca, Morocco. A saint's shrine remains here, but no Jewish community.
The battered walls of a narrow alley lead to a closed door, in this issue's hauntingly simple cover image by Canadian photographer David Cowles. One imagines a lane mysteriously carved out of an ancient city, an open door, and a thriving life flowing in and out of it, jostling in the narrow streets of the Jewish mellah in Azemmour, near Casablanca. Instead, Morocco is almost bereft of Jews. The door communicates now in other ways.

In this issue, Hilde Hein writes movingly of the mega-forces coming to bear on one small museum of Jewish culture in Casablanca after 9/11. Her reflections are accompanied by a suite of Cowles's luminous site-portraits documenting the two-millennia-long path of Jewish settlement--synagogues, cemeteries, saints' shrines--in North Africa. Since 1993, Cowles has made numerous trips to Roman, Islamic and Jewish sites in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia, photographing the eroded walls and artifacts of communities saturated with the patina of passage. His conversation with these ancient structures, he writes, is not meant "to dramatize loss, but to record their passing beauty in the course of a historical process of change."

Cowles had no idea the door was about to shut on these sites. At the time--before 9/11--it was relatively easy to visit an Arab country and get a permit to photograph. His process is itself classical, like his subjects; it is also speedy but exacting. Working with a large-format camera, he sets up a master shot to determine the exposure--which may be as long as five minutes in natural light--and shoots quickly, often while engaging the caretaker in a distracting conversation to prolong the visit. The comparison to Ansel Adams is inevitable, but as Cowles observes in an interview posted on his Web site (www.drcowles.ca), "...what I am doing is in a way the opposite of Ansel Adams, who photographed things as if they were outside of time, who photographed the monumental. I photograph a moment--the moment as monument."

The sense of bearing witness is palpable. Bars of sunlight, streaming into cavernous spaces of worship and lighting up heat-soaked interiors, illuminate both perilous antiquity and the cruelty of transition. These buildings have become museums of the mind: recorders of the spirit of everything that has passed through them. Museums, orthodox and otherwise fascinate Cowles. He writes: "I love small under-funded museums. They have a kind of purity of soul. They are treasures of civilization. The concept of museums is so interesting. My wife has a museum of the heart, locked inside the glass doors of a cabinet-gifts that contain personal memories, select dog-eared photographs of children and relatives, intimate notes that conceal momentous occasions, special books and a packet of letters. I have a small museum of antiquities, and then, of course, art itself is a kind of museum, especially photographs, which borrow the visible moment to express their meaning in the way a snail borrows a shell to house its life."

Although migrations have occurred throughout history, the displacements of our own era seem more extensive and unnerving than any other. Shifting populations are altering the globe in unforeseeable ways. On the one hand there are mergers of peoples who have historically been separated; on the other, a distillation process in which people flee or are forced out of communities that once sheltered diversity. But it would be a mistake to see these migrations as merely physical. There are also transformations, great and small, affecting societies, cultures, and what one might call the mind's architecture.

The articles in this issue all address aspects of migration that impact on the world's museums. The brutal dislocation of 60,000 mixed-race residents in a poor but vibrant community in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966 created aftershocks that led to the founding of the District Six Museum, now a magnet for international visitors as well as a powerful symbol for former residents. As Roy Ballantyne writes, District Six Museum is both an homage to everything that vanished, and an instance of post-Apartheid reconciliation and healing. In such an emotionally and morally charged atmosphere, asks Ballantyne, how can museums practice what he calls "hot" interpretation? How does the museum facilitate the process of bearing witness?

Carol Scott, writing from Australia, observes the difficulties museums face in responding to the new expectations placed on them by governments that are themselves in the throes of redefinition. As patterns of work, leisure, family and community change, the definition of "public good" is also altered. Museums are given new fiscal responsibilities that echo vast alterations in the images governments hold of their constituencies. A new concern for the formerly excluded and marginalized is incorporated into the museum's self-image. Scott asks: Who is the public, and what are the benefits? How do we know what's "good," and for whom?

As the world becomes more porous, Christina Kreps writes, the old definitions of curating as an object-centered process are colliding with new social realities. Acknowledging the fundamental importance of relationships--among people, societies, cultural groups--leads to recognition of the fact that curating is in essence a social practice. Curators are not only professionals in a museum community; they may also be shamans, stewards and priests in traditional societies, and/or members of Native American or other cultural and religious identities concerned with taking care of sacred objects and preserving cultural heritages. The mental walls once erected around objects are coming down, and in the newly wall-less world, the practice of curating is reflecting the human reality of unbounded intersection.

The inevitable symbol of this cross-cultural merging is the Internet, which leaps over all physical barriers and extends its web everywhere that people are able to learn its entry language. Fiona Cameron writes of transitions in consciousness brought on by our own media tools. Most simply, for museums, the question arises: How is collections information to be framed? What should a museum Web site offer? Does a site present classical methodologies of intellectual architecture and modernist narrative? Or is it organized as a "mind map" of interrelationships created by the user?

Addressing a related issue, Andrew J. Pekarik observes that museum Web sites are not "doorways into the museum," but more like landing pads for visitors who parachute in from outer space, that is, from the ethereal Web and its tenuous mind-mapping connections. The observation applies not only to Web sites, we note, but to the matter of intersection generally. The "other" may be from outer space, but it has landed in the back yard.

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Table of Contents | Brush-Toned Still Lifes | Jewish North Africa | Morocco | Vestiges of Rome | Re-Visioning Antiquites
Portfolios Index | Images of Jewish Morocco I '93 | Jewish Sites of Cairo and Alexandria '94
Images of Jewish Morocco II '95 | Tunisia '97 | About the Jewish North African Portfolios
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