Republic of Tunisia
Ministry of Cultural Affairs

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Traditional Heritage Museums: Reality and Prospects

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While interest in collecting and exhibiting topographical material in Tunisia dates back to the colonial days, actual investment in this aspect of cultural heritage has actually begun since independence.
Dar Djellouli in Sfax was the first space to be used as a “museum” for this purpose by the researcher Lucien Golfan in 1939. It is worth noting that the colonial powers did not officially establish any museum of topography during their rule in Tunisia and had selectively dealt with the topographical material based on their relative perception of the “local arts” (the indigenous arts). The Museum of Folklore and Traditions (Dar Bin Abdullah) was founded in 1967. Soon after, museums that collect and display items that reflect popular culture were built, making 11 museums allocated in different regions to date.
While the efforts invested in this direction are critical, they have not been overall satisfactory, for the government was unable to establish a "museum narrative" in this area. A geographical map of the distribution of these museums shows unjustified imbalance, especially when our heritage is rich and in desperate need to be better highlighted and cherished. These museums also suffer from several dilemmas, such as the absence of a legal framework to dictate the rules of its organization, terms of reference, arrangement, and objectives; the inadequacy of its spaces to carry out its functions, as most of these museums are originally monuments that have been reconditioned to fit their new role, which is in turn extremely harmful either to the monument in itself or the museum collection or both.
At the same time, museums of the "traditional heritage" worldwide have evolved as the result of technological and academic progress. As a result, new notions and frameworks have emerged to overthrow the rigid and unlively classical methods. Some orientation went to the extent of getting over topography and replacing it with living heritage/ intangible cultural heritage. Our museums were neglected, and many of their collections were subject to damage and loss. Even those well-equipped to fulfill their function failed to properly carry out their educative, entertaining role and other museum functions and show awareness to their social surroundings and visitors. Starting from this perception, emerge major issues that require a holistic view, scrutiny, and scientific investigation to define the roles of the museum in a way that aligns with our country's strategy in this sector and its legal framework next to the requirements of security, namely in relation to the preservation of the museum's collection, the safety of visitors as well as the question of the promotion of the museum.
As a result of the foregoing, we suggest the following:
The Creation and Development Streams of the “Traditional Heritage” Museums:
The international bodies and organizations of museums specialized in Museology, Culture, and State Laws provide different definitions of museums. We can notice how these definitions have constantly been changing to keep up with the pace and unfolding of history and attendant technological and information progress as well as social changes. This problem has been the subject of inquiry for many studies that have attempted to define the role of museums in alignment with the requirements of the twenty-first century.
Moreover, some countries have established scientific committees to look into the museum's requirements during the current century, such as France. In 2017, the French Ministry of Culture received a report from the group working on the "21st Century Museums" mission, launched in 2016. However, the classification of museums was controversial among specialists in this field, such as the classification by legal status (typology by legal status), by geographical region and size (typology by geographical area and size), by architecture (the architectural approach), or according to the thematic approach (the thematic approach). Nevertheless, this approach is most used among specialists. Under this section, the symposium suggests reaching a new definition of the "Traditional Heritage Museums" that aligns with the latest concepts related to this type of heritage through tracking their developments while highlighting the importance of the legal aspect as a framework within which concepts are applied, and relationships and roles are regulated.
Traditional Heritage Museums in front of the Cultural, Social, and Technological Transformations:
For a museum to sustain its activities, it has to keep up with the cultural and social transformations in society and benefit from the new technologies. Any failure to keep up with one of these elements will limit its ability to perform its roles. In addition, new technologies play a crucial role in delivering the museum's mission to larger audiences and in creating spaces for that audiences to interact with museums. In other words, new technologies create a space to promote cultural interaction as well as cultural diversity instead of merely being a set of objects displayed in glass showcases.
The Reality of Traditional Heritage Museums vis-à-vis the Development of Museology and Heritage Concepts:
Since the establishment in the 19th century of folklore, intangible cultural heritage, and ethnology as a field of study, "folklore and traditions arts" as museum materials have been the subject of interest to many disciplines, such as heritage maintenance and preservation, the various exposition-related specialties, not to forget academic research, of course.
When it comes to the development of Museology and the widespread interest in the notion of the intangible cultural heritage, the museums associated with the latter have to rethink its various aspects.
How to make traditional heritage museums a destination for visitors in light of comparative experiments?
Tunisia's museum system is undoubtedly beset by various challenges, mainly due to the absence of a national strategy in this sector, making any reform attempt seem like a patchwork act whose flaws soon surface. Apart from the shortcomings of most museums, those that received some significant interventions have also failed to bridge the gap between them and the public, which calls into question the futility of their existence in the first place.
To not fall into nihilism, we must work on answering the question: How do we make our museums a destination for both the surrounding social sphere and foreign visitors? In this regard, it should be noted that the purpose of promoting the museum as a cultural subject is not to achieve material gain per se, for it is not a for-profit institution. Instead, the goal is to achieve its radiation on its immediate social environment in the first place, increase the number of visitors and strengthen their ties with museums in the second place. Doing so makes its mission success a space for promoting educative, cultural, and universal human values.

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