Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Working to preserve modern heritage


Consisting of institutions and individuals from the Middle East and North Africa, the Modern Heritage Observatory (MoHO) is working for the preservation of the region’s modern cultural heritage. 


“The term modern heritage seems to be an oxymoron if one understands heritage as necessarily associated with the ancient, the disappeared, not to mention the obsolete,” architect George Arbid writes in the introduction to the MoHO magazine. He goes on to explain that the drive that pushed the numerous collectors of modern heritage to collect, document, and preserve, was symptomatic of a dire need for this work to be done.


MoHO was initiated by the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), the Cinémathèque de Tanger, IRAB Arab Association for Arabic Music and the Arab Center for Architecture (ACA). Its members, now numbering over 40, include the Lebanese National Library, Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation, Sound of Iraq, the Institute for Palestine Studies, and many more across Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The network was set up in 2011 and is funded by the European Union and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.


“The four partners came together to pool their efforts, with the fact that they all have a great need for capacity building in organizations working with modern heritage in mind,” MoHO coordinator Sarah Morris explains. “It was also in reaction to the state of heritage and policy. There was and still is a need for more to be done and for pressure to be exerted.”


“Those network members present in Lebanon meet regularly to discuss common concerns and needs and to share experience and expertise,” says Morris. The organization also organizes regional symposia and recently held a two-day event in Morocco celebrating modern cultural heritage, which included discussions and cine-concerts. 


MoHO’s second regional networking meeting recently held at AUB brought together an eclectic mix of academics, professionals, and activists. It was a reflection of the kaleidoscopic range of activities that relate to the preservation of modern heritage. 


On June 8 and 9 of this year MoHO organized the first celebration in Lebanon of International Archives Day (IAD). Eight institutions in Beirut, many of which are normally closed to the public, opened their doors to visitors, who were curious to discover more about their country’s recent past and heritage. “People were very committed to this event and worked on the weekend, unpaid, to share their knowledge and their collections with the broad public,” Morris explains.


“It was a great success and very well attended. There were very varied events, IRAB for example did an event at Metro al Madina. It really visualized what MoHO tries to do. In creating a map, where people could go from one institution to another, we could showcase the common work we do, and the common goals we want to share with the public. The National Library works in difficult conditions, but they’re passionate, they really care. When I went there I felt that. For us, for the AIF to open on a Sunday, it allowed for new and for younger audiences, to get to know us.” The Arab Center for Architecture, the Fouad Debbas Collection, An Nahar’s archives and the Cervantes Institute also participated. 


It was the AIF that founded one of the key regional cultural preservation projects relating to photography back in 2009, The Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative. In On Photography American writer Susan Sontag states: “Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.” 


The initiative assesses and surveys undervalued, significant photographic collections in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. 300 collections have so far been surveyed. The MEPPI directory, which will allow for searches in Arabic and English by country, time period, and topics, will be available in early 2014. 


Another major success of MEPPI is the courses it has run for 38 collections in 14 countries.By 2015 the number of participating collections will have increased to around 60. Run over a period of three years, with lectures by regional and international experts, the courses taught participants – professionals working with photographic collections – photograph preservation, storage, housing, emergency preparedness, history of photography in the Arab world, digitization practices, fundraising and advocacy, amongst others. 


“The program’s been really successful,” project officer Reem Akl tells NOW. “There’s been a very strong impact of the courses over the last three years. Everyone wanted to carry on. One applicant in Kuwait who runs a private museum and photograph collection, reorganized the entire museum he works at after the MEPPI training, trying to implement what he’d learnt.” 


Akl hopes to secure funding to offer a second project phase, which may include organizing a symposium to explore ways how to reach decision-makers. “There’s something that needs to be done on this level.”


A member of MoHO and another of the institutions to open its doors as part of IAD was the National Library, currently housed in a building at the Port of Beirut, awaiting the completion of a dedicated building in Sanayeh in 2014/2015. Stephan-Hachem, Professor of Library and Information Sciences at the Lebanese University, hopes that it will become a vibrant meeting point for the MoHO network and other organizations.


For the IAD celebration in June, “National Library staff went out of their way to come up with an enticing display and give visitors an authentic and broad insight into the library’s holdings,” Stephan-Hachem tells NOW. 


The 3,000 periodicals that the library holds are a treasure trove. For decades, dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies were collected and archived. For IAD, works from as long ago as the 17th century were put on display alongside many from the more recent past… some of which were deliberately risqué, to rouse visitor’s curiosity and challenge perceptions.


Stephan-Hachem explains: “The collection of periodicals represents the country’s heritage. It’s really our memory! And your average Joe Bloggs does not know this modern heritage.”


Arbid writes in the MoHO magazine: “perhaps more than anywhere else, it is vital for our societies to recognize here and now the importance of modern heritage, to counter amnesia triggered by wars and traumatic changes, as much as to resist any complacent and delusive surrender to glories of the past.”

A display during International Archives Day at the AIF (image courtesy of Ralph Nashawaty)

“The collection of periodicals represents the country’s heritage. It’s really our memory! And your average Joe Bloggs does not know this modern heritage.”