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Beirut to Baghdad: Communities, Collecting and Culture

Start Date 17 June 2004
End Date 20 February 2005
Venue Powerhouse Museum
Location Sydney, Australia

Beirut to Baghdad was a socially topical exhibition that placed the Powerhouse Museum’s Western Asian collection in an historical and cultural context, viewing it from a local and middle eastern perspective. Memories and associations of Arabic-speaking Australians — inspired by the historical collection — provided a personal aspect and community voice to the interpretation of the material.

This intriguing exhibition featured both young and old members of Sydney’s local Arab community and presented a mix of voices and visions bringing new life and meaning to ancient artefacts.

Visitors could hear contemporary Arab-Australian community members share their memories and associations of middle-eastern costumes, textiles, ceramics, metalware, tiles, coins and antiquities collected by the Museum over the past century.

Beirut to Baghdad was a cooperative project with the Powerhouse and Arab-speaking Australians, and part of the Wattan Project, initiated by the Powerhouse in 1998 to explore and document the diverse experiences of Australia’s Arabic community. The Powerhouse Museum continues to forge strong community connections and support and encourage public involvement in the arts.

Showcased within the exhibition was historical material spanning six millennia sourced from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, the dynamic centre of western Asia, more commonly known from the European perspective as the ‘Near’ or ‘Middle East’.

The exhibition gave the visitor an experience on a number of levels — an insight into decorative objects from the Arab world, an opportunity to share the views of local Arabic community members, and an invitation to consider the wider issue of cultural representation.

Exquisite ceramic tiles from Syria illustrated this multi-layered perspective. Taken at face value, the tiles highlight the intricate development of geometric and abstract design through classical Islamic art. On an abstract level, as suggested by community members, each tile is a small part of a much bigger wall, taken out of its original context. In this way one tile carries the ‘burden’ of representing a bigger cultural picture.

The exhibition reflected on traditional museum practices of collecting, by examining the European notion of ‘Orientalism’ or how the ‘Western’ world fantasises about the ‘East’ – a view that the late Edward Said, the author of the ground-breaking Orientalism in the late 1970s, interprets as providing ‘the Other’ by which Europe could define itself.