Craig on Rey, 'Mediating Museums: Exhibiting Material Culture in Tunisia (1881–2016)'

Virginie Rey
Kyle Craig

Virginie Rey. Mediating Museums: Exhibiting Material Culture in Tunisia (1881–2016). Studies in the History and Society of the Maghrib Series. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Illustrations. xi + 244 pp. $104.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-39496-4.

Reviewed by Kyle Craig (Northwestern University) Published on H-AMCA (March, 2023) Commissioned by Sarah Dwider (Northwestern University)

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Mediating Museums: Exhibiting Material Culture in Tunisia (1881–2016) examines the entangled relationships among museums, colonialism, and postcolonial identity formation in Tunisia. Grounded in archival and ethnographic methods, including interviews with museum curators, observation of exhibitions and museum events, and analysis of museums’ printed matter, news reports, and photographs, the book traces how Tunisian ethnographic museums have transmitted and constituted prevailing conceptions of modernity/tradition, vernacular culture, and national identity from the French protectorate until the years immediately following the 2011 uprisings. Virginie Rey analyzes Tunisian ethnographic museums as “spaces of mediation” that play a central role in cultivating national subjectivities and portraying Tunisian culture to global audiences. According to Rey, museums mediate visitors’ relationships to multi-scalar social worlds beyond the museum and, by “naturalising certain cultural values, whilst displacing and diffusing tensions and anxieties,” aid in the construction and maintenance of social hierarchies. Elaborating on previous scholarship on museums as sites of social and ideological production, Rey also emphasizes that “in museums is an in-built disposition that works irrespective of the intentions of the people who operate them” (p. 3).[1] In over eleven succinct chapters divided into four chronological parts, the book carefully draws out ethnographic museum professionals’ fluctuating modes of inquiry into local customs and their approaches to heritage preservation and curation of Tunisian national culture throughout major transformational periods of roughly the last century and a half. In doing so, Rey thoughtfully examines the afterlives of colonialism by foregrounding postcolonial subjects’ attempts to cultivate new and autonomous forms of collective recognition while using and reshaping colonial-era institutions.

In part 1, “Mapping Tunisian Material Culture (1881-1956),” Rey traces the emergence of ethnographic museums during the French protectorate. Museums established in the early years of France’s occupation prioritized ancient Roman and Carthaginian archaeology to reinforce French colonial identity and encourage French migration to North African colonies, as “French presence in North Africa was justified as a legacy of the Roman Empire” (p. 30). In the early twentieth century, French officials began establishing museums that functioned as sites for exhibiting Tunisian indigenous material culture and as pedagogical centers within which French “experts” taught Tunisian artisans how to craft objects evoking both “the ‘sensuality’ and ‘exoticism’ of the Orient and the ‘modernity’ and ‘rationality’ of France” (p. 34). These objects were then sold to French tourists and in the metropole to bolster France’s craft economy, which was being elevated amid the breakdown of hierarchical distinctions between fine and decorative arts in Europe. Rey details how this new interest in Tunisian customs and material culture was a by-product of France’s associationist relationship to North Africa that gained prominence in the second half of the colonial period. While under assimilationist policy the French sought to fully socialize colonized subjects into French culture and administration, under associationism French colonial authorities recruited and empowered a handful of local elites to “modernize” the country from within. Under this associationist Mission Civilisatrice (civilizing mission), French craft makers worked with Tunisian artisans to produce and export goods that catered to both French tastes and “the Orient’s special place in European Western experience.”[2]

Rey shows how France’s associationist programs in North African colonies profoundly affected the modalities of exhibition in Tunisian museums, particularly in the museums of indigenous arts established in the mid-1930s. Jacques Revault, head of the Office des Arts Tunisiens (OAT)—a French institution dedicated to archiving and exhibiting Tunisian culture and training Tunisian artisans—implemented an approach to displaying Tunisian material culture whereby instead of separating the audience from objects with a glass case, visitors could move through and interact with the objects or sit in spaces modeled after a Tunisian domestic interior. This exhibition style was meant to mediate a relationship between French audiences and the exhibits that fed into their consumerist impulses and encouraged them to imagine these objects in their own homes. Similar exhibitions were held in the metropole, “placing France and its mission towards the revival of artisanship in the colony at the apex of the evolutionary ladder” (p. 53).

In part 2, “Ethnographic Objects (1957-1980),” Rey demonstrates how in the decades following independence in 1957, Western-educated Tunisian intellectuals sought to reimagine ethnographic museums in order to construct “a common denominator from which a national culture could be rehabilitated” and reclaimed from French colonial narratives and Westernization (p. 63). The newly independent government headed by President Habib Bourguiba shuttered the two primary institutions for cultural management during the protectorate, Service des Antiquités and the OAT, and replaced them first with the Institut d’Art ed d’Archéologie (INAA) and shortly after with the Centre des Arts et Traditions Populaires(CATP). Rey primarily focuses on CATP, the institution responsible for the postcolonial domestic revival of ethnography, a discipline that many Tunisian intellectuals maligned as “a dubious tool of domination deployed by the French to portray Tunisia as an archaic society” (p. 64). Rey explains how, although Tunisian academia recognized sociology as the ideal field for studying Tunisian identity, a group of Tunisian researchers within CATP saw in ethnography a path for “rediscovering” Tunisian vernacular culture as it was before the ruptures caused by Western influence.

Rey tracks an important shift whereby, even while drawing on colonial research and curatorial methods, CATP’s satellite institutions like the Museums of Popular Arts and Traditions (MATP) rejected protectorate-era emphasis on the aesthetic and economic value of “modernized” decorative arts. Instead, they presented exhibitions as cultural data for “processing the national past and supporting the Tunisian people on their long journey home” (p. 70). In this sense, Rey argues, ethnographic museums in the immediate postcolonial period inverted colonial attempts to modernize traditional crafts and instead aspired to “the traditionalisation of modern life” that, according to these Tunisian intellectuals, was losing its identity due to outside influence (p. 93). As Rey notes, however, CATP faced significant challenges, including the state’s prioritization of archaeology for constructing a grand national past, difficulties in overcoming the stigma of anthropology as a weapon of empire, and internal disputes regarding how to reject protectorate-era teleological narratives of progress while also accounting for cultural change.

Much of the history of ethnography, from salvage anthropology and structural functionalism up to poststructuralism and the reflexive turn, has told the story from the standpoint of Euro-American academic institutions. Here Rey adds a crucial piece to that history by considering how subjects of newly independent nation-states deployed ethnographic research and curation in the hopes of fostering collective belonging via “genealogical recognition” while reckoning with colonial legacies at multiple scales from the discipline itself up to the nation (p. 6).[3] In this regard, Rey’s case study is an invitation for future scholars to write intellectual histories of the social sciences and humanities that complicate rather than reinforce Eurocentric narratives. In so doing, it would be possible to subvert accounts that default the West as producers of knowledge and the rest as subjects of knowledge production.

Rey argues in part 3, “Patrimonialisation (1985-2011),” that under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule (1987-2011), the role of Tunisian ethnographic museums shifted from sites of internal reflection, where Tunisians could learn about themselves, to places that projected an image of a modern, democratic Tunisia in touch with its traditions and heritage to an international audience. Unlike his predecessor Bourguiba, Ben Ali took a more concerted interest in the cultural sector as a tool for developing the country’s tourism industry, distancing Tunisia from Arab nationalism and gaining personal acclaim as a champion of democratic ideals and East-West conciliation. Capitalizing on the rhetoric of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were promoting “culture” as a resource for economic development and “peace building,” Ben Ali supported a robust government initiative that aimed to maximize what places, things, and practices could be remade into “national cultural heritage.” INAA was restructured to put decision-making power in the hands of government institutions, such as the newly named Ministry of Culture and Heritage Conservation (formerly the Ministry of Culture) and its many branches. Several departments were formed in Tunisia’s universities to build up a professional class of Tunisians working in heritage management and promotion. Furthermore, groups of Tunisian intellectuals began to aspire toward a restructuring of Tunisian museums in line with international standards of museography promulgated by such organizations as the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

Several private museums were also established during this era of patrimonialization, which instigated new disagreements over how to evaluate and authenticate Tunisian arts and culture. State cultural workers, who serve as Rey’s interlocutors in this section of the book, criticized private museums for promoting the “folklorization” of Tunisian culture. Rey’s ethnographic fieldwork illuminated how, contra Arab-majority countries such as Jordan, in Tunisia’s museum sector “folklore” widely signifies cheap and undignified pastiche. She found that such terms as “ethnography” and “heritage,” however, denote “a serious methodology, the use of technology and strong background research” (p. 167). State cultural workers directed many of their criticisms at private museums that are modeled after traditional Tunisian architecture; offer live performances of local practices, such as crushing couscous; and blur the lines between an exhibition and a gift shop by selling soaps, handcrafts, and trinkets produced onsite. Rey calls into question the sharp division between supposedly serious and authentic public institutions and superficial and mercantile private ones. According to Rey, this binary framing fails to capture how actors in both sectors attempt to reach a harmonious balance of didactic and entertaining methods of display, even while these museums offer distinct experiences of Tunisian vernacular culture.

Through meticulous historical analysis, Rey emphasizes how the bulk of ethnographic museums in postcolonial Tunisia from independence onward have downplayed the presence of minority groups, such as Jewish, Amazigh, and Afro-Tunisian communities, while privileging a Tunisia defined by Arab ethnicity and Sunni Islam and, under President Ben Ali, as a Mediterranean hub of cooperation between East and West. Following the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” that ousted Ben Ali and helped inspire similar mass uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, minority communities have been vying for more civil rights and representation in government. As Rey notes in part 4, “Revolutionary Museums (2011-2015),” the cultural and intellectual sectors have also followed these currents, for example, by establishing the Musée des arts et traditions du Judaïsme Tunisien and facilitating academic conferences and research on the pluralistic qualities of Tunisian life. Rey draws attention to how ethnographic museums are attempting to find their footing in this new era amid funding deficits and institutional challenges. Museums and heritage sites have also faced increased attacks by violent Islamist groups, such as in 2015 when ISIS claimed responsibility for the murder of nineteen people during a hostage takeover by three gunmen at the renowned Bardo Museum in Tunis. Rey elucidates critical reverberations of Tunisian history into the current era by illustrating how one implication of this violence is that museums have generally continued promoting a “homogenous version of the national culture” out of fear of further attacks (p. 213). Rey concludes the book by remarking that Tunisian museums face “a pressing need to create a public space that is genuinely open to all voices, even those that are difficult to reconcile,” rather than promote a vision of unity that shuns dissenting views (p. 214).

Overall, Mediating Museums is a timely contribution to museum studies in general and research on museums in Arab-majority societies in particular, which overwhelmingly focus on archaeological museums.[4] Rey offers an impressively detailed and interdisciplinary history of the shifting social and political-economic roles of Tunisian ethnographic museums in mediating peoples’ relationships to colonialism, independence, NGOs and international development, emerging tourism economies, and revolution. Through in-depth comparison with scholarship on museums in the Middle East and North Africa, the book contributes critical insights into how people in postcolonial spaces attempt to assert sovereignty and form national communities from within colonial infrastructures, such as museums.[5] Rey’s attention to museum exhibits as mediating peoples’ relationships to differing and, at times, competing conceptions of nation, modernity, and tradition is in productive dialogue with a recent study by Hanan Toukan, which examines similar questions through the lens of international funding and art diplomacy in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine (The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan [2021]). The book also pairs well with Jessica Gerschultz, who focuses on the gendered dynamics of Tunisia’s postindependence decorative arts industry in Decorative Arts of the Tunisian École: Fabrications of Modernism, Gender, and Power (2019). Furthermore, Rey’s edited volume, The Art of Minorities: Cultural Representation in Museums in the Middle East and North Africa (2020), published soon after Mediating Museums, delves deeper into museum representations of minority communities in the Mediterranean Basin.

The concept of “mediation” has much room for further application. For example, while Rey contends that “mediation is at work even when not actively sought,” the book mainly focuses on the differing logics and aspirations that shaped curatorial practices in ethnographic museums throughout the recent Tunisian past (p. 3). Mediation would thus be a productive analytical framework for future scholarship investigating how museum politics extend beyond individual curatorial agency and the types of relations and subjectivities museums mediate for various actors and audiences.


[1]. See, for example, Tony Bennet, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995); James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Ethnography,” in Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 17-78.

[2]. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 1.

[3]. Cf. Jessica Winegar, Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[4]. See, for example, Karen Exell, Modernity and the Museum in the Arabian Peninsula (London: Routledge, 2016); Karen Exell and Sarina Wakefield, eds., Museums in Arabia: Transnational Practices and Regional Processes (London: Routledge, 2021); and Katarzyna Pieprzak, Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[5]. Notable exceptions include Lisa Bernasek, “‘First Arts’ of the Maghrib: Exhibiting Berber Culture at the Musée du Quai Branly,” in Berbers and Others: Beyond Tribe and Nation in the Maghrib, ed. Katherine Hoffman and Susan Gilson Miller (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 174-94; Aomar Boum, “The Plastic Eye: The Politics of Representation in Moroccan Museums,” Ethnos 75 (2010): 49-77; Carol Malt, Women’s Voices in Middle Eastern Museums: Case Studies in Jordan (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005); and Pieprzak, Imagined Museums.

Citation: Kyle Craig. Review of Rey, Virginie, Mediating Museums: Exhibiting Material Culture in Tunisia (1881–2016). H-AMCA, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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