baghdad folk museum: peaceful wax world draws visitors keen to escape everyday violence

Behind well guarded walls lies Baghdad's Folklore Museum, featuring hundreds of life-size wax statues in scenes from the city's history. Visitor numbers are rising and some suggest it's because this is one of the only places Baghdadis get to wax nostalgic about their city, before the car bombs, when it was a more peaceful place.

 

As one romantic enthusiast wrote: once you go through the doors of the Baghdad Folklore Museum, you are transported back through time as though on a magical flying carpet. Today the Museum remains a major attraction for the people of Baghdad and recently it's seen more crowds than usual. Some say it is because the Museum's scenes of an ancient and more peaceful Baghdad offer them an escape from the violent reality of modern life in the capital. It harks back to the days when Baghdad deserved the name Dar Al Salam, or "place of peace".

 

One of the visitors today is Raed, a man in his 60s. He often comes here and the moment he enters the museum, he breathes deeply – it is as if he wants to revive his memories and the beautiful history of Baghdad.

 

Today he has brought his granddaughter. He wants her to know how people in the past used to live when there was no power, no computers, no Internet and no mobile phones. Bt most importantly he wants her to know what life was like when there were not bombs going off all over the place. The pair hear the sound of music in the distance and Raed bows his head. He explains to his grandchild that the museum hosts concerts for traditional and historical music of the kind that is rarely heard outside of its walls. And with that, he takes her hand and sets off to show her the museum's different wings.

 

The Museum was opened in 1970 after the mayor at the time, who had returned from an overseas trip where he had seen similar institutes, decided it was a good idea. It was closed in 2003 to prevent damage after the Us-led invasion of Iraq that toppled former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, then re-opened in 2008. Now there are close to 400 wax statues in the museum depicting a variety of historical, folksy scenes that show how Iraqis used to live. The set ups, all created by local artists and craftspeople, depict Iraqi lifestyles from the 19th century through to the late 20th.

 

Alya Jassim, 50, works as a tour guide in the Museum and she says that her job is getting more difficult. "The number of visitors is increasing so fast," she told NIQASH. "Especially after the administration decided to open the Museum on Fridays."

 

Jassim doesn't mind that the place is open on days usually reserved for religious observance and rest. She feels as though there's a spiritual connection between herself and the Museum. "It reminds me of the old days, of my grandparents and their old house, and the details of their lives – these were so rich," she notes.

 

Jassim does have some criticisms though – she believes the museum needs more maintenance and better upkeep. "Everybody who visits wants to know about the Iraqi heritage," she says. "We get foreign delegations and diplomats from various countries and we should make this place worthy of all the attention. It should be able to deliver an appropriate message about Iraq."

 

The grandfather, Raed, and his granddaughter are still moving through the Museum. It is housed in an a historic building that was constructed during the Ottoman Empire and that also held Baghdad's first printing press. Raed says he noticed a group of engineers inspecting the walls and some cracks in the walls. He asked the engineers if there was a problem, even if it was dangerous, but they simply replied that the building was in need of routine maintenance.

 

It's clear that the Museum's administration wants to attract more visitors. It's virtually free of charge – the entry fee is less than US$0.50 – and there are plans to keep the Museum open seven days a week. To the casual visitor though, its seems clear that a few things need to change before that can happen. There are rusty signs around and the staff wear dirty uniforms.

 

Then again most of the visitors here seem to be ordinary Iraqis who don't notice some of these uncomfortable touches. One might imagine that, this Museum being about history, it would attract some of the country's intellectuals.

 

"When I first saw these statues I felt that they were not just silent stones," says one poet who came to visit, Safaa al-Sheikh Hamad. "I felt that they were talking to us, giving us advice that we should listen to carefully so that we don't lose what is left of our heritage – a heritage that's been damaged by war, violence and the negligence of officials."

 

Hamad was in the minority though. Most of the visitors are Iraqi families, some of whom come for a picnic in the grounds.

 

Raed and his granddaughter are now in a wing of the museum depicting historical market scenes. Raed's granddaughter asks all kinds of questions as her grandfather tells her the different roles played by the wax statues.

 

Do we still have storytellers, mullahs and water carriers?, she asks.

 

The grandfather replies: No, they are all dead now, dear.

 

Her answer to this comment is telling and demonstrates why the Folkloric Museum is still important, and maybe why it is also so popular. "That's sad," she says. "Were they all killed in an explosion?"