Ten months after an attack allegedly carried out by Isil killed 23 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia, the institution’s director, Moncef Ben Moussa, spoke to our sister paper Le Journal des Arts about the leading African museum’s efforts to rebuild.
The Art Newspaper: How has daily life changed since the attack on 18 March?
Moncef Ben Moussa: At first, we were afraid that [Isil] would achieve their aim, which is to gloss over our cultural heritage. But the wave of solidarity that followed has given us hope. Visitor numbers remain problematic. There was a drop after the beginning of the Tunisian Spring in 2011, from 600,000 to 200,000 visitors a year. Today, the numbers are even lower, with barely 15,000 visitors a month.
The Bardo houses the immense Triumph of Neptune, considered to be the largest wall mosaic in the world, and the only known portrait of Virgil. Have you noticed an increased awareness among Tunisians of their cultural heritage?
Definitely. It’s a new but tangible phenomenon. Despite the importance of tourism, culture has always been marginalised in Tunisian politics. In the 2000s, fewer than 10% of our visitors were Tunisian. The attack seems to have reconciled Tunisians with their heritage.
What has been the general impact of the Arab Spring on the museum?
In 2009, we launched a refurbishment project that was scheduled to finish in 2012. It suffered from an understandable delay and still occupies most of our energies: seven rooms out of 40 still need to reopen. But we have not suffered from political pressure, even under Ennahdha [the majority party between 2011 and 2014], and that was important.
Are you seeing cultural institutions playing an intellectual role?
Culture is a path but also a barometer of democratic transition. Today, we are seeing a proliferation of cultural initiatives, notably in the visual arts. Literary expression is also wider, the first benefit of the revolution being freedom of expression. The programming and attendance of the Theatre of Tunis and the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music say a lot about the changes that are under way.
Does the Bardo Museum collaborate with any other major Arab museums?
Unfortunately not. We have always collaborated with European and US institutions, but more rarely with our neighbours. We would have much to exchange, but I think that they are focusing on survival and continuity; we ourselves are barely out of that.
Bardo sends key works to Italy
The Bardo Museum in Tunisia is lending eight key works from its collection to the Archaeological Museum of Aquileia in Italy. The exhibition (until 31 January), organised by the Fondazione Aquileia in collaboration with the regional government and Tunisia’s National Heritage Institute, aims to illustrate the cultural exchange between the Roman colonies of North Africa and Aquileia, one of the early Roman Empire’s largest and richest cities. The collaboration is the first step in Wounded Archaeology, a wider programme for 2016-17 that will present objects from threatened museums and heritage sites around the world at Aquileia’s archaeological museum. — V.R. and H.M.