As much as I like going to museums and art galleries, I sometimes struggle with the question of what these institutions contribute to the world. And I know museum and gallery professionals struggle with this question too. Sometimes people just need a place where they can look at or interact with something that gives them new ideas or new insights, or makes them see the world in a different way. Museums and art galleries can be that place. But while I certainly disagree with the business-oriented operational model that demands tangible and measurable outcomes – because that model assumes that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist – I do wonder sometimes whether museums and galleries can use their resources to have a more visible impact outside their own walls.
So I was very excited to read about an art exhibition which will have a tangible external impact. 168:01 is currently on view at the Esker Foundation gallery in Calgary, Alberta. The exhibit is by Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal, and the exhibition is….a library. But it’s a library that represents the loss of a library – the library at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad, which was largely destroyed during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Looters burned over 70,000 books in the library, and most of them have not been replaced.
Bilal explains the title of the exhibit this way:
[The] Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, [is] a starting point for a sculptural installation of a library. The Bayt al-Hikma was a major academic center during the Islamic Golden Age where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars studied the humanities and science. By the middle of the Ninth Century, the House of Wisdom had accumulated the largest library in the world. Four centuries later, a Mongol siege laid waste to the all the libraries of Baghdad along with the House of Wisdom. According to some accounts, the library was thrown into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for the Mongol army to cross. The pages bled ink into the river for seven days – or 168 hours, after which the books were drained of knowledge. Today, the Bayt al-Hikma represents one of the most well-known examples of historic cultural loss as a casualty of wartime.
The :01 in the exhibit title represents the point in time at which the rebuilding of the lost library begins, and when the knowledge in those books starts to be replaced.
Anyone who loves libraries, or who has studied visual arts or art history, feels the pain of a lost library. And students in fine arts or visual arts programs have a particularly strong relationship with libraries. They need libraries for information on techniques and for creative inspiration – and in the arts, there is a lot of material that simply isn’t available online. If you can’t see something in person, you often have to find what you need or want in a book. So the loss of a fine arts library is particularly heartbreaking for many reasons.
Bilal’s exhibit in Calgary is simple yet brilliant. As the photo shows, it’s a bare room containing white bookcases full of blank white books. The gallery also has a “wish list” of books that has been compiled by the faculty of the College of Fine Arts. Visitors to the exhibit can make a donation, or they can purchase a specific book on the list. As the books are purchased, they replace the blank white books in the gallery. At the end of the exhibit, all the purchased books are shipped to the University of Baghdad, and each donor receives one of the blank books.
Ironically, I didn’t know about this exhibit when I was actually in Calgary a few weeks ago. So I didn’t get to see it for myself. And Calgarians are very generous people, so it’s not too surprising that the 200 blank books have already been spoken for. But I was delighted to find that anyone anywhere can donate a book to the exhibit, by purchasing a book from the university’s “wish list” on Amazon. The Amazon list is set up so that the book will be shipped to the Esker Foundation, and then the book will go to Baghdad with the other books when the exhibition closes.
It made me very happy to purchase a book to contribute to this project. 168:01 is a great demonstration of how museums (and their visitors) can use their resources to make a positive impact. In a week that has seen far too much conflict and violence in many parts of the world, it’s comforting to be able to do something constructive that might make a difference somewhere. The exhibit runs until August 28; I hope you’ll consider donating a book too.