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Story | Community
25 June 2020

‘Understand history because it repeats itself’: director of Qatar’s slavery museum on racism


Bin Jelmood House, one of the four historic houses turned into exhibition spaces by Msheireb Museums.

Msheireb Museums’ Bin Jelmood House sheds light on the Indian Ocean world’s past involvement with slavery, and as global protests against racism continue, raising awareness about such events from history has become more vital

As protests against racism and police violence continue around the world following the death in the US of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, the mission of a slavery museum located 7,000 miles away in Doha has become all the more important.

“It’s very important to understand the history of racism, because history repeats itself,” said Dr. Hafiz Ali Abdulla, director of the museum, adding that for anyone around the world to empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s important to understand the root of the racism, which began with slavery but continued well beyond the official abolishment of slavery.

Founded in 2015 on the site of a former slave trader’s house where slaves from across the Indian Ocean were traded as recently as the early 20th century, the museum aims to raise awareness about the Arab world’s buried history of slavery. Named Bin Jelmood House, the museum is one of the four historic houses turned into exhibition spaces by Msheireb Museums, a project of Qatar Foundation’s subsidiary Msheireb Properties.

It’s important to understand how racism works as a result of slavery, not just in the US, but also in other places

Fahad Al Turky

“It’s important to understand how racism works as a result of slavery, not just in the US, but also in other places,” said Fahad Al Turky, Exhibitions Manager at Msheireb Museums. “The museum is an opportunity to understand that there is global anti-blackness that is connected to slavery, as well as various other complex historical processes, such as colonialism and capitalism.”

The museum shines a rare light on the subject of slavery in the Middle East, which is often missing from public discourse because of the extreme sensitivity of the topic. However, according to Turky, recognizing a problem is the first step to finding a solution for it.

“It’s important to look within our own communities,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t address the historical injustices and other ills within societies, like racism, it only makes it more entrenched within a society, and makes it more difficult to achieve justice.”

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism also lauded the museum during her visit to the country last year.

“I wish to commend the museum for the powerful and crucial contribution to Qatar and the world more broadly. As is the case in all nations, Qatar’s past is vital for understanding its present and shaping its future,” read the rapporteur’s report to the UN, praising the country’s use of “arts, culture and sports to shift societal values, beliefs and perceptions fundamental to equality and non-discrimination.”

Museums such as the Bin Jelmood become a site of learning, and we give a different kind of narrative that is often times not talked about

Fahad Al Turky

Race as a social construct
One of the exhibitions within the museum, titled Journey to the Heart of Life, looks at the DNA and genetics of a diverse group of people in Qatar to highlight how, biologically, all humans are similar to one another and come from the same origins.

“Race is a social construct, not necessarily a genetic or a scientific concept. The DNA exhibition shows that we have much more in common than we are different. So how is it possible that we can we exercise racism or slavery on each other?” said Turky.

Turky noted that while race is not a scientific phenomenon, racism is real and oppresses the lives of so many people around the world because of the society’s perceived notions of race.

“Museums such as the Bin Jelmood become a site of learning, and we give a different kind of narrative that is often times not talked about,” added Turky. “And this is really important for awareness because once you understand this narrative or alternative history, you become more aware of the intersection of slavery, institutions, race, gender, and so on.

“Museums play a vital role in informing these discussions, and they are often the first step in starting those discussions.”

Dr. Hafiz Ali Abdulla

This museum is a live document of what is happening around us

Dr. Hafiz Ali Abdulla

Msheireb Museums regularly work with educational institutes across the country to ensure important conversations about discrimination, slavery, and human exploitation also get discussed within classrooms. The museum has established the Msheireb Museums Friends program, which trains teachers and leaders from educational organizations and youth associations to become cultural ambassadors of its message and engage with its content both within and outside the museum.

In 2018, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) awarded Msheireb Museums with the Best Educational Practice award for their educational and cultural activities.

“This museum is a live document of what is happening around us and we are always working on enhancing the content and outreach of the museum that can help us improve any aspect of the society or the future,” said Dr. Abdallah.

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Bin Jelmood House aims to raise awareness of the history of slavery in the Arab world.

Msheireb Museums work with educational institutes in Qatar to ensure issues such as discrimination and slavery are discussed in classrooms.

As educational institutions start opening up after the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted, the museum’s team plans to collaborate more actively with schools and universities to continue the conversations on race and discrimination that have become all the more important in light of the protests starting from the United States.

“We are not trying to pinpoint who was wrong or who was right,” said Dr. Abdallah. “We are just trying to show the basic attributes of being human that we all share and creating a conversation about how there is no superiority of one race over the other.”

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