- Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco
Imagined Museums is a richly documented, provocative, and timely study of Moroccan museums from the Protectorate (1912–1956) to the present, focusing on contemporary art and the post-independence period. It begins by enumerating complaints from Moroccan artists and intellectuals about the lamentable current state of Morocco’s 15 state-run museums and small number of private museums and foundations. The author probes narratives of decay and decline, of “run-down” and “visually depressing” exhibition spaces, of “cemeteries for artworks.” She takes the reader on a quest to find out why museums appear to have failed and what is being done about it. The result is both sobering and inspiring.
The first half of the book examines museums as “Monuments,” arguing that the current conception of the national museum has its roots in a Protectorate-era mentality where the museum’s role was to preserve “authentic” culture and display it to administrators, tourists, and artisans. Pieprzak shows [End Page 488] that since the 1960s, artists and writers have constantly critiqued the Moroccan state for being unwilling to invest in making museums truly modern and relevant to public life, and not merely projected images of modernity to attract tourists and foreign investors. They decry the “stagnation of political will for change that would transform the depository model of museums created during the Protectorate into a museum that engages and serves the general public with dynamic exhibits that educate and also encourage everyday Moroccans to reflect on different cultural practices present in the nation and beyond” (p. 31). Having demanded a national art museum for the past 50 years, Moroccans are still waiting. Although a museum is finally under construction, Pieprzak seems skeptical that the government’s grandiose plans will result in a model of museum best-practices.
The second chapter investigates corporate art collections in Morocco. Although Moroccan corporations, particularly banks, hold stunningly large and beautiful collections, Pieprzak is the first to analyze their exploitation of the idea of a museum to attract income, investment, and prestige for themselves. For these corporations, eager to “balance their identities as global citizens and local subjects” (p. 65), art collection and patronage is a financial investment, but benefits have not trickled down to the general public. Part I ends with an investigation of the Belghazi Museum as a private “cabinet of curiosity” which functions, once again, as a space that excludes most Moroccans from their patrimony.
The second half of the book offers an eye-opening perspective on alternative practices that serve some of the museum roles that state and private institutions have failed to fill. “Discursive museums” built through the work of Moroccan cultural journals in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s opened discourse on art to a broader audience. “Ephemeral museums” in the form of five art-in-the-streets projects strove to bring modernist and contemporary art closer to the Moroccan public in a concrete manner. The conclusion describes the “portable literary museum” of a poet and the stateless “nomadic museums” conceived by artists and videographers. This “proliferation of museological products that meaningfully engage both local and global communities” (p. 177) is a clear sign that many Moroccans remain as optimistic as the author about “the potential of Moroccan art and its architectures of invention as a radical transformative social force and [… about] the museum as a central site for the negotiation and staging of the future” (p. xxix).
Pieprzak, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and French, approaches her work not as an art historian per se but as an expert in Middle East Studies and cultural studies. This book represents the epitome of the latter discipline. It is thoroughly researched, drawing on archival work in private and public libraries, colonial and postcolonial journals on art and culture, tourism magazines, pamphlets, brochures, travel narratives, comments from museum visitors, blogs, and quotes from journalists, writers of poetry, and fiction. Pieprzak...