Nina Swaep, volunteer, British Museum
When I started working as a volunteer at the British Museum last September, the preparations for Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam were already in full swing. Luckily, that didn’t prevent ‘team Hajj’ from including me as one of their own. Today’s my last day and I’ve been looking back on my time at the Museum with much fondness!
Being a Dutch MA student in Museum Studies specialising in Islamic Art at the University of Amsterdam, I was absolutely convinced that participating in this project would be the ultimate work experience for me. In Amsterdam, I had already done research on museum objects that related to the pilgrimage to Mecca – one of which is now featured in the exhibition – and I was willing to learn everything there was to learn. I wouldn’t really mind if my job would consist of pouring coffee and copying files, as long as I could get a closer look at the process of exhibition-making…
So you can imagine I was more than happy to find out that my tasks were a lot more challenging and demanded academic and social skills. The curators took me up and patiently showed me how exhibition making works. I could join meetings with them and found out that it’s not just a few people working on projects like these, but an immense organisation that takes years to prepare the exhibition.
Come winter, my work was focussed on the Indonesian section if the exhibition which features objects from Dutch museum collections and, more specifically, the collection of the Dutch arabist Snouck Hurgronje. I had worked before on the Aceh Map (which is on display in the exhibition) when I was in Holland but I had the opportunity to do some more research while here at the British Museum. I found out that, compared to all the other images featured throughout the exhibition, it shows a rather different representation of the Ka’ba. For one it isn’t shown as a cube but as a rectangle, which seems strange because the cubical shape is one of the main characteristics of the Ka’ba. Also, one can see through it, so it is shown without a kiswa, the cloth that covers the Ka’ba. These finding confirmed the idea that the maker of the Aceh Map had never actually been to Mecca – he could never have seen the Ka’ba without its kiswa, since, as one can learn in the exhibition, it is never unveiled.
The most enriching experience I have had whilst working on the project was contrary to all my expectations. It didn’t have anything to do with the glamour of the opening night, nor with the rewarding feeling when the exhibition finally opened to the public. It was a lovely autumn day when I found myself sitting at my desk, being deeply emotionally moved by the short clips of Muslims talking about their own pilgrimage, which I had to edit. I think the feeling of being an individual person amidst the millions of fellow pilgrims, brothers and sisters, must be completely overwhelming and to me the exhibition succeeded in communicating this to its visitors. The exhibition is particularly successful because of the wonderful balance that has been achieved between showing intimacy and the bigger picture of the Hajj being a phenomenon influencing millions of people around the world. It works on multiple levels and is therefore very satisfying.
As my time at the British Museum comes to an end, I can say that this has indeed been the ultimate experience for me; meeting many wonderful people, learning so much. I think the meaning of the exhibition became very apparent to me. Although I cannot go on Hajj myself, like many Hajjis, the Hajj exhibition has certainly changed my life for the better…
Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition
This post was updated on 9 March 2012 to clarify Nina Swaep’s role on the exhibition as a volunteer, not an intern as previously stated.
In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.