by Christopher Charles Hockey
I found myself sitting in a small diwaniya drinking extraordinarily sweet tea while men ran around shouting worried instructions to one another. They were seemingly confused as to what to do with me. Why was I here? Why would I possibly want to visit their museum? “Let’s just give him some tea while we figure this out,” I expect one of them had suggested. I admit I was feeling rather bemused myself. Was I actually in the right place? Was this actually a museum open to visitors?
This was the reception area of the Kuwait House of National Memorial Museum. This was the first of what will be many visits to museums in Kuwait. I will be writing reviews of these visits, to be found here in bazaar for the next few months. Museums, particularly those with galleries focusing on historical events, can play an important part in representing and even creating feelings of identity. Kuwait’s national identity is an interesting topic for anyone, even more so for an expat with little prior experience of life in the Middle East. What it is that makes Kuwait unique? What makes someone from Kuwait label themselves “Kuwaiti”?
Perhaps the most significant event in Kuwait’s history is the Iraqi invasion of 1990. This was a time when the very existence of Kuwait as an independent sovereign state was threatened and the event has subsequently formed an integral part of Kuwait’s national identity. The Kuwait House of National Memorial or the “Not to Forget Museum” about “Saddam Hussain Regime Crimes” (to give all its titles) therefore seemed like an obvious place to start my series on Kuwait’s museums. I will begin each article by describing what can be found at the museum. I will then review the museum as a visitor attraction, assessing such things as the lighting, the layout, the accessibility and how engaging the displays were. Finally I will discuss how it represents Kuwait.
What is the museum?
When the men returned to get me from the diwaniya, I was ushered (along with a group of about 10 other visitors who had appeared from nowhere) into a dark room with little explanation as to where we were going. However, what we experienced was certainly impressive. We walked through a series of rooms with dramatic reconstructions of scenes from the war. There were models with complex lighting to simulate explosions. There were television screens with reports from the time. The continuation of the story was triggered by the visitors’ movement through the gallery. The narration was dramatic and very informative, if extremely one-sided. The first room was a general introduction to Kuwait’s history. It gave details of Kuwait’s independence and information about the origins of the Al-Sabah family. The tranquillity was then disrupted by news of Iraq’s invasion. The following rooms then relayed the barbaric acts of the Iraqis and the heroism of the Kuwaiti resistance. The way in which the part played by the international community and foreign forces in liberating Kuwait was played down is, at best, an attempt to generate national pride in Kuwait but, at worst , an incorrect re-writing of historical fact for the purposes of propaganda. This, however, should not take away from the beautifully created displays and clever lighting or the fact that the museum acts as a memorial for a brutal war that caused huge loss of life.
Once the ‘panorama’ was finished, I walked through an extremely informative display cataloguing the events of the war and the damage caused to Kuwait as well as the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein against his own people. There are many shocking images of war and the galleries celebrate the martyrdom of the Kuwaiti people. There is also a nice section celebrating the help received from international forces. In another part of the museum, one finds the original head from the Saddam Hussein statue pulled down in Baghdad in 2003 following the US invasion of Iraq. This, in itself, is an impressive monument and an important relic from the Middle East’s recent history. In this section of the museum the visitor also finds documents from the war as well as life-size reconstructions of events during Iraq’s brief occupation of Kuwait. The material on display is impressive but at times there could be a little more explanation.
Overall visitor experience
This is a very cleverly designed museum with some really carefully designed models and important relics from the war. The sound and light ‘panorama’ is a brilliant experience to walk through. The museum is informative and carries a clear message. However, I do have some reservations. There was an odd reluctance to show me everything that the museum had to offer. It was only because I asked about Saddam Hussein’s statue that I was taken through to a separate room to see it. Further, once in the room I was forced to ask what was behind some doors before they reluctantly opened them up to reveal some wonderful displays. There are also a number of more practical issues that I would consider before visiting. Firstly, the museum is not the easiest place to find. I have included some instructions on how to get there. Secondly, there were a number of technical issues while we were there. The panorama sound and light ‘system’ broke down more than once and there were issues with the television displays. Thirdly, if you are prone to migraines the bright flashing lights may not be the best thing for you. Finally, the museum is certainly not for the faint-hearted. There are gruesome images of war that may be quite disturbing.
What does the museum say about Kuwaiti identity?
The message was clear. The museum promotes strong feelings of Kuwaiti national pride. It attempts to unite the Kuwaiti people over their actions in the First Gulf War. The war is obviously a good starting point in my search for what forms Kuwaiti national identity. It is interesting however that the men at the museum had little pride in what they had to show. There was no real desire to show me the displays. Moreover, the museum is poorly publicized. It is odd that a museum with such a strong message to preach does not try to target more people. Perhaps the strange welcome I received and the friendly but reserved hospitality are also important aspects of Kuwait’s identity. These quirks do not take away from the fact that the museum is definitely worth a visit, whether you are Kuwaiti, a tourist or an expat.
The museum is located in North Shuwaikh. Travelling west on the Gulf Road (25th Street) you will see the huge KPC (this is your nearest large landmark) building in front of you before the road bends to the left. After the bend take the first left and the museum is one hundred metres or so on your right.