The legacy of academic Orientalism

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

This summer, I was extremely lucky and got to work in the British Museum’s Ancient Near East Department and with the Palestine Exploration Fund. During our discussion today about different types of Orientalism, I realized that I was surrounded by the after affects of academic Orientalism at my internships.

This was especially apparent at the PEF. It was founded in 1865 to study the Levant (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria) and to focus on everything but the politics of the area. It’s strictly academic and today their library and archives are open up to anyone who wants to study there. Since the PEF was created in the 1860s it was, as Said pointed out, late enough that classic Orientalism was a thing of the past. But after having read his article and listening to our class discussion yesterday, I think that the PEF was at the time of its creation, a half-way point between Orientalism and modern scholarship.

The PEF went out to the Levant to do archelogical and geographic surveys. They more were interested in the hard facts of the area than any sort of fantastical legacy it might have; however, there were still filled by the imperialist British idea that they were the only ones capable of exploring the area. Instead of working with local scholars and museums, they took total control. From what I saw, their only regular interaction with locals was as a source of labor. All of the ‘important’ work, such as surveying and working with artifacts, was done by the British. And a lot of those artifacts are now residing in Western museums.

I think the possession of these artifacts presents an interesting problem. My supervisor Felicity had me scanning copies of the APES photos (the American Palestine Exploration Society. Their choice of acronym was just the beginning of their problems) and she loved these photos. Besides being gorgeous, a lot of the buildings pictured have since been destroyed, meaning that these 140 year-old photos are all that’s left. As wonderful as it is that there are at least photographs, it begs the question of why explorers didn’t stay around to help preserve the things they claimed to love so much instead of swooping in, taking something, and leaving. This problem can present itself in literature: a culture can be co-opted by another one but still destroyed at the same time. I’ll be interested to see if this issue comes up in any of the books this semester and how the authors interpret it.


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