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The Nahrein Network


Fostering the sustainable development of heritage in post-conflict iraq and its neighbours


Archive for June, 2024

Dark Heritage

By Zainab, on 19 June 2024

We talk to Dr Salah Al-Jabri, Professor of Philosophy, University of Baghdad. Dr Salah Al-Jabr held a Nahrein – BISI Visiting Scholarship at UCL. Dr Salah Al-Jabris project is titled Dark Heritage and is under the supervision of Dr. Beverly Butler.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am Salah Al-Jabri, Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy, College of Arts of University of Baghdad, the holder of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention Studies in the Islamic World, and the former Dean of the College of Arts of University of Baghdad. My interest in the topic of genocide, atrocities and crimes against humanity arose from the suffering and pain that my own family suffered during dictatorship due to the oppressive practices, physical liquidation, and deliberate destruction of their property by the totalitarian Baathist regime in Iraq before 2003.

The security services of Saddam Hussein’s regime killed two of my brothers arrested my parents and sisters, and demolished and burned our house. From these tragedies my interest in turbulent heritage arose, especially genocide, places of pain, and the memory of pain. This interest was embodied in attempts to explain what has happened, preserve the memory of pain, measure the extent of the damage and suffering to which my family and thousands of other Iraqi families were exposed, and the extent to which transitional justice and reparation were achieved. Then the idea of documenting and preserving these crimes developed through blogging, museum exhibition, technological displays, and others. Through my personal effort, determination, and perseverance, University of Baghdad obtained the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention Studies, and I was chosen to chair it and to implement its programs.

Dr Salah in front of the Wilkins Building

Tell us more about your project.

Difficult Heritage is a concept which is synonymous to heritage that hurts, heritage of atrocity and places of pain or shame. Difficult heritage sites are places and institutions “that stand as legacy to painful periods in history, massacre and genocide sites, places related to former penal institutions, prisoners of war, battle fields and many more.” Difficult heritage site management is a structured activity which supports a meaningful and holistic experience for visitors within the context of diverse and complex services scopes. The aim of this study is to increase the understanding of how difficult heritage of the past is expressed within museum management in UK and apply it in Iraq.

In this research project, I aim looking to examine models and best practices in developing collections for and displaying difficult heritage (especially genocide) in the UK to convey to Iraq. This involves field visiting and analyzing War and Holocaust Museums and Centers and Institutions on Genocide Studies and talking to UK experts on best practices for developing collections and curating exhibitions involving difficult heritage and genocide. In the second part of my research, I will analyze and contextualize those strategies and ways for developing genocide collections and curating genocide exhibitions in Iraq.

This study has been supported by important Iraqi institutions: the State Board of Archeology and Heritage, the Directorate of Mass Graves in the Iraqi Martyrs Foundation. They have recognized the need to establish museums for the difficult heritage in southern and northern Iraq to preserve the Iraqi memory in the marshes, Kurdistan and cemeteries and all kinds of difficult heritage, whether pre or post ISIS.

Prof Salah with Prof Eleanor Robson at UCL

What was your Visiting Scholarship experience?

The project of documenting and displaying difficult heritage in Iraq is one of my current jobs, which I am studying and developing by studying important international models, especially models of war museums, difficult heritage, science and art museums in UK. In this context, the research fellowship project was kindly funded by the Nahrein Network, an institution that has served Iraqi heritage, history, and culture for years.

This visiting scholarship opened the gates of London and Oxford, which were closed to me before. I visited London museums such as the Imperial War Museum, the British Museum and the Art Museum. I also visited the city of Oxford, its university and its museums such as the Science Museum, the Oxford University Museum, and other heritage places. I benefited greatly from this fellowship in reformulating and enhancing my ideas, in addition to being acquainted with methods of documenting difficult heritage through museum display, photography, video, audio recording, as well as the use of advanced display technology.

What are your future plans now that you are back in Iraq?

I am currently completing and developing my research, benefiting from my visits to University College London and the University of Oxford, and from my visits to museums in London and Oxford. I will employ the amount of research sources I collected from the University College London Library, and other libraries in London and Oxford, to develop the theoretical structure of the research, achieve the research hypotheses, enrich its results, and provide hypotheses for other new research. I will also use the information I obtained from my visits to museums in London and Oxford to develop the practical dimension of the research, especially related to museum display methods, display technology, and the use of sound and artistic effects to reconstruct a poignant memory of past events, such as those photographs used in the Imperial War Museum in London.

The books and research I obtained from the University College London library helped me to develop my research, plan other research, and design workshops on difficult heritage to be held in the College of Arts and in other Iraqi universities. There are other work projects that I am looking to launch, such as a project of documenting the difficult heritage of the marshes in southern Iraq. I was also inspired by my visit to University College London and the London museums and libraries, the idea of holding an international conference under the title: Painful Memory in Iraq and the Islamic World. I actually presented the idea of the conference to the university and received approval, and the conference will be held next November.

Prof Salah Al-Jabri, Prof Beverly Butler and Dr Mehiyar Kathem at UCL