Why museums have become my guilty pleasure

Guest post by Mirella Cullen, BA in Cultural Studies and English – currently on exchange at the University of Manchester in the UK

I am usually met with either scoffs or admiration when I mention how I can (and now do) get lost in museums/exhibits/galleries/what-have-yous for hours. They are sites of education and enlightenment through cultural exhibitions, where one has the opportunity to learn about topics ranging from Dadism to the Byzantine Empire – all under one roof.

Being on exchange in the UK has been a blessing for someone like me because the vast majority of their museums/exhibits/galleries/what-have-yous are free (something I’m not used to – I’m looking at you, Royal Ontario Museum). Now combine free with a culturally-obsessed student and you’ve got a winner.

As a result, I’ve been on a knowledge rampage since I’ve been here: London’s Imperial War Museum and British Museum, Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Technology to name a few.

So how could I ever be displeased?

(Un?)fortunately I have reached a point where I am more overcome with guilt, rather than enjoyment, with every plundered mask from Africa and every exhumed mummy from Egypt. The majority of what you see at these sites of education, enlightenment, and culture are stolen materials.

It may not help that I am a settler born in a British colony that is still working towards reconciliation with Indigenous communities, but it’s alarming to see the minimal, if any, acknowledgement of Britain’s colonial past in exhibits and how/why those objects got there in the first place.

It got to the point where I felt compelled to leave written, publically displayed feedback (in my defense, they were literally asking for it) at the Manchester Museum addressing their use of the term “Indian” in reference to Indigenous peoples of what is now North America. What I left on that note (albeit with harsher words) is what I’ll say here: they should know better.

And that’s what flabbergasts me. Curators and museum staff should have the educational background to at least properly identify their stolen goods.You may think “stolen goods” is going too far, but can we really continue to justify the privateering of cultural objects, people, and animals for educational purposes when the information provided isn’t even accurate?

British Museum, London, England.

At this point I feel like my cynicism is apparent but maybe not substantiated, so I offer a comparison: Animal activists have long attacked the confinement of animals in zoos or for entertainment purposes, and as a cultural studies student, I can’t help but feel like that is the same treatment that these cultural materials receive. This isn’t to solicit empathy or equate the damage to livelihood, but hopefully it paints a better picture of the importance of incorrect cultural representations and the perpetuation of falsities.

There may not be any life or blood in museum collections, but there was. And is there any educational benefit to their display without proper information or acknowledgement of how and why these goods were able to be there in the first place? No, they are stolen or “discovered” goods (unless they have been donated to the respective institution by a representative group).

By no means do all exhibits fall victim to the glossing over unfavourable aspects of a country’s past.  I’ve stumbled upon radical alternatives to these publicly funded institutions that call themselves “People’s Museum of (insert city)”… which also happen to be free (win!). These sites are dedicated to Britons of the past two centuries who have paved the way for democratic and socialist reformation in the United Kingdom.


People’s History Museum, Manchester, England.

But still – the jump from invading countries, dismantling their system through violence, twisting their ideologies, and leaving them with no choice but dependence to the crown – to the celebration of their democratic politics, again, without really profiling the atrocities of colonization… worries me.

Museums and the like serve a purpose, don’t get me wrong, and my obsession (guilt in tow) is only growing – there just needs to be some type of reform on how their collections are presented to visitors. If you’re over the age of 12, I refuse to believe you need to be told that India is not in North America, but still, here we are…

The Journey of a Syrian Family: Part 4

As some hot tea and sweets were served by Mrs.Alsahoud, I asked Mohammad how life is now. He says with a relief how everything here is better than Jordan. There is no threat to him or his family’s lives and all of his children are enrolled in school. He is currently working in Toyota, washing cars. But one day, he wishes to go back to school and study math. That is when we both shared our fascination of the subject. I asked the kids how were they finding their new school. All five of them agreed on how it was good to be back to studying and explained they are enjoying their time in school. Mohammad interrupted me to say he has 6 more children. I asked where are they. He explained with sadness how they were scattered between Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and two of them were waiting at the Syrian border at the time because the Jordanian government was not accepting them. To lighten the mood, I asked him how he found Kelowna’s summer. The kids said how they found summer to be really beautiful, but some days it was as hot as it was in Syria. It turns out that we all shared an image of Canada as the ‘great white North’, and clearly we have been proven wrong by Kelowna! We ended the interview and as I was walking out, Mrs. Alsahoud hugged me.

What has truly inspired me is the optimism of the Alsahouds, the hospitality with which they treated me and how homely it felt. They didn’t let the war change who they are or darken their future. They didn’t let a war define their lives. They SURVIVED the war and decided to start a new chapter, make a new home. Sitting down with the Alsahoud family helped me understand the struggles of the war and know things that I would not have read in any news article. As a person who is an avid reader of current affairs, I have been following the Syrian War since the first protest. To be able to sit down with the people who have experienced the war, lived through it and survived, was truly a privilege. It made me appreciate my life more and increased the respect I had for refugees tenfold.

Refugees not just from Syria, but from other war-torn nations are fleeing to Europe. What can be seen is that very few nations are as welcoming to refugees as Canada and Germany has been. A lot of blame is being exchanged to avoid accepting refugees, many parties are on the defensive saying that they have done enough. Walls are being built, camps are like jails. Sometimes such behavior by nations makes me think that are they even treating these refugees as humans or as animals? After World War II, thousands of people from the Axis power nations fled elsewhere. The EU is one of the leading advocates for human rights. Now when the time has come to test them on the very same principles they advocate for, most EU nations have not stood up to it. However, it is not only Europe that needs to be looked at. Many Arab countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia have defended themselves by saying they have given shelter to millions of refugees. I salute them for this because they stepped up when many others didn’t. Still, they need to take the next step and ensure the integration of the refugees into their societies. The responsibility of the governments do not end by just sheltering the refugees and giving them food (sometimes it feels like a jail to them). The governments need to helps the refugees get jobs and their families settled. This also benefits the host nations because successful integration of the refugees into the society would mean that there will be a significant increase in the nation’s manpower and productive workforce. Refugees will then be able to contribute significantly to the host nation’s economy.

No one wants to flee their homes, turn their entire world upside down and feel that their life is at threat. No one wants to cross the Mediterranean with their children, knowing that they might die. No one wants to live in refugee camps and see their lives go by, helpless as they are unable to earn and improve the lives of their families and children. But sometimes all of these things do happen, and as much as it is unfortunate, they happen at the same time. These refugees are not criminals. They are law abiding citizens of their country where they either were a university student or professor, businessman, economist, engineer, scientist. They have the right, like every human being on this planet, to safety, security and happiness. They do not deserve to be treated as if they are unwanted, stopped by fences, be forced to walk hundreds of kilometers or live in refugee camps forever. They deserve to LIVE.


As I walked out, I asked Mohammad do you miss home?

He replied, “There is no home anymore.”




UBC Okanagan Students Union has taken a great initiative in helping out this family! Check it out: https://www.facebook.com/UBCSUOkanagan/videos

The Journey of a Syrian Family: Part 3

Mohammad explained how refugee camps were not as great as one might think. Refugees were not able to get out of the camp without a sponsor or work permit (both of which were really expensive!). As Mohammad put it, ‘life in camps is a lot like prison’. When I asked why, he explained.

Syrians fled their country because it was either that or getting killed.  However, once crossing the border, the Jordanian government puts great hurdles (financially) in obtaining a work permit. Mohammad describes how he saw fellow Syrian brothers and sisters feeling trapped in the camps where there was no scope to work, there were no schools for the children and no one could go out of the camp. With hundreds of thousands of individuals sleeping and living in a small area and feeling trapped, this increases social problems. Mohammad elaborated that for the individuals who were able to obtain a work permit, getting jobs was harder as he found that the Jordanian society was not welcoming. Thus with no job, it was hard for these refugees to sustain their lives. For those working illegally in Jordan, it felt like a sword was hanging over their heads because if caught, then they would be deported back to Syria which to them was equivalent to dying.

Then I asked Mohammad that how did he come to Canada. He explained how the UN has a refugee database, as refugees have to apply to get the refugee status. The UN selected the Alsahoud family from its database, informing them that they had been accepted to be transferred to Canada. They were asked whether they agree and they said yes. Afterwards the Canadian embassy called them, asking various questions in an interview such as what Mohammad did in Syria, his background. This entire process took seven months. Finally, in May 2015, the Alsahoud family boarded the plane to Canada.

At this point in the interview, Mrs. Alsahoud comes in asking us to join for lunch. I looked at the watch and couldn’t believe that almost 2 hours had gone by. I saw halfway through the interview how Mrs. Alsahoud got up and went to the kitchen. But I didn’t realize that she was making a feast! It was my first time having Syrian cuisine and it was a delight! I had a Syrian version of hummus and it was quite delicious. Being an international student myself, it had been a long time since I sat with a family and ate a meal. Sitting with the Alsahouds, having food cooked by a mother’s hand, it kind of made me homesick and miss my mum .

Over lunch, we talked about life under the Assad regime and Mohammad explained how nepotism was pervasive. Bashar Al-Assad belonged to the Baath Party, a political party in Syria. He belonged to the Alawite minority . Thus these two groups got more preference. Mohammad had been in the army for 5 years. When he applied for a position in the army for which he was trained, he didn’t get it despite being one of the top candidates. The position was given to an individual from the Alawite sect. Things such as this was quite common. Merit and talent was not always valued; rather what was valued is whether you were from the Baath Party or the Alawite sect. Mohammad explained how Assad didn’t feel he was accountable to his people. During the 80s, in the middle of the night, some people came to his house and took his brother with them. The next morning, he went to the army office and asked about this. They asked him how did he know it was the army. Mohammad replied how he was in the army and knew that it was their car. The only reply the office gave was, ‘yes we took him but you don’t need to know why’. Since then, Mohammad hasn’t seen his brother.


The Journey of a Syrian Family: Part 2

Mohammad had been one of the first few Syrians to enter Jordan as a refugee. Refugees in Jordan require a sponsor to get out of the refugee camps and legally stay and work in Jordan. Mohammad was diligent in clarifying to me that a Jordanian sponsor was not the same as a Canadian sponsor. In Canada, when Mohammad arrived with his family, a local church and the Kelowna government together took the responsibility of supporting them in beginning their lives in this new place. This includes financial support for a year, providing support in getting a job for Mohammad, enrolling his children in school and settling his family in a house. In contrast, in Jordan a sponsor is only on paper, one whose signature is needed to allow refugees to legally stay in Jordan. Unfortunately, providing that signature is the only help sponsors will provide.

Mohammad had worked in Jordan between 1992-1993, during which time he made few friends. When he fled to Jordan in 2012, these friends in Jordan helped him get a sponsor. Furthermore, Mohammad was able to do some work by helping his friends in buying and selling things. But life was nowhere near what it had been in Syria. He was earning enough just to survive. The meager work that Mohammad did while in Jordan was not approved by the government via a work permit. One might wonder why didn’t Mohammad pursue the legal avenue?

Mohammad was one of the first fifty thousand Syrians to arrive in Jordan so he was fortunate, as back then sponsors didn’t demand money for providing their signatures. When a huge influx of refugees started coming in, Jordanian sponsors started charging a large fee for providing their signatures. On the other hand, the government of Jordan also charged for the work permit for these refugees. The work permit would allow them to live and work outside the refugee camps. Both options would enable the Syrian refugees to live in the Jordanian society, work and contribute to the economy. However, the integration of refugees was hindered by the financial cost, one which often was not feasible for those people who fled war and persecution from their country with very few belongings. Sponsors charging money was not legal, but like many other individuals such as human smugglers in the Mediterranean, everyone took an advantage of those in a dire situation.

The Journey of a Syrian Family: Part 1

On a Saturday morning in December, I visited the Alsahoud family. It had been eight months since they arrived in Canada, from a refugee camp in Jordan. I sat down with them to talk about their experiences, to hear first hand all that I read in the news and to see the war from their eyes.

In March 2011, residents of Homs started protesting against the oppressive regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Without a care for his people, Assad ordered the law enforcement officials for a severe crackdown on these protests. This resulted in the deaths of many civilians. In March 2012, the army entered Homs. Fully prepared with its tanks and big guns, the military displayed its mighty powers and ordered that if anyone stepped out of their house they would be shot. Homs was under a siege by the very military that was supposed to protect it.

One such Homs resident was Mohammad Alsahoud. He was a cattle merchant who led a prosperous life in Syria. He has 11 children, 5 of whom were below the age of 18. He had a big house and earned well. When the Syrian army besieged Homs, Mohammad was afraid about the safety of his family because the civil war that broke out hadn’t gotten any better in the last one year. So, on March 11th he fled with the minors, to an area thirty kilometers from Homs. On April 20th, Mohammad decided to cross the border to Jordan. He didn’t know what he would do there, neither did he know how his life would be. One thing he did know was that he had to leave his motherland as it was no longer safe.


Lost in the aisles of somewhere,
Entrapped in the concept of nowhere.
I am in search of a destination,
Crossing paths across terminal location.
Citizen, bound by an ethnic circulation,
International, condemned to encircling global territory.

Immigration, I march down barricades,
Guarded by soldiers of treason, renegades.
A buzzer goes off and I fail the test,
of what you may ask,
Colour, race? Identity, space?
Would I pass the test?

Confined now to seats with strangers,
embarking on a similarly different journey.
One hundred and ninety-six unique people,
variant definitions of home.
A cataclysm of diverse cultures,
within an arms reach, yet ever so often untouched.

If “airports”, symbols of sincere goodbyes,
could become springboards of eternal companionships.
and harness their true potential, it would not be a pity.
A serene-ly-deep-pity.
Violence and destruction,
for fear of superstition and conventional thinking.
A chance at multi-culturalism & ethnic-integration,
lost at each passer-by, neighbour and attendant.
All masked by a determination to reach home;
a mere destination.

by   Nene Azu

Nzulezo: The world heritage site on stilts.

Nzulezo-1This December break, I had the pleasure of visiting  Nzulezo, a town on stilts, located in the Western Region of Ghana. Nzulezo directly translates to ‘on the water’ in Nzema, one of the major languages in Ghana.  To get to this town you need to take an hour’s ride on a canoe, through a river that leads to the settlement: a town of about 1500 -2000 people living on water, with the closest land 15-20 kilometres away.

“According to local legend, the village was built by a group of people from Oulata, a city of the ancient Ghana Empire and in present-day Mauritania, which came about from following a snail.” (Wikipedia, 2016) . The story was further verified by our tour guide and one of the local elders who met us and greeted us with their local drink, palm wine. He told of a time when his ancesntors had to migrate from their ancestral home in the great old Mali/Ghana empire located in the regions of current Mali/Gambia Senegal region. They were conquered by the Senegalese nation and thus chased away for fear of their return. They were led by a snail god, who advised them to make rafts and go into the river until they reached a place where he would advise them how to build.Nzulezo-3

What really got to me about this place was the ambience of happiness the villagers exuded. Walking in we were met by singing and warm welcomes as the people, who normally see foreigners come in, take pictures and enjoy the experience, were shocked to see other Ghanaians coming in to appreciate their way of life.
It gave me a breath of fresh air as I realized how distant we sometimes are from our own cultures, taking vacations and safaris to other parts of the world and not critically exploring our own surroundings.  Thus, I took a keen interest in the history behind this bewildering site and listened keenly to the local elders who shared in the history.

The people there have been there since the beginning of the 14th century. They have all social amenities including a clinic, a kindergarten and primary school, night clubs, a church, chop bars (local restaurants), a community centre and even guesthouses for visitors who want to spend the night. The people seemed very friendly and were insistent on taking photos with us and welcoming us to see their residences. They spoke at length on the medicinal herbs found around and the longevity they enjoy living off land, with most people living beyond the century mark.

I brought back some souvenirs from the site, which the United Nations has dubbed a World Heritage Site. The people have also been given some land close to the settlement by the government so they can farm. Some interesting images of baby canoes which the young ones who choose to go to the local school on land use, as well as the architectural plan they use to build on the river. All in all this was an amazing experience, seeing the different local wonders of the world which are not characteristically shown on mass media. If you get the chance to visit Nzulezo, don’t pass up on it!