Review: Weaving Connections, an online exhibition by Multaka-Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum

Weaving Connections: Local perspectives on collections from the Middle East, North and West Africa is an online exhibition organised by the Multaka-Oxford Volunteers in collaboration with the Pitt Rivers Museum curators. You can access it here. It is a refreshing, welcoming and innovative exhibition, and proof that personal perspectives on artefacts can only improve the stories we tell.

Intricate embroidery on the back of a thob (Palestine). Pitt Rivers Museum.

The exhibition takes you through a collection of textiles from the Arab world, presenting several objects from each country to showcase a specific kind of craftsmanship and offer a glimpse into each culture. We go to Yemen and see a beautiful korta (a woman’s dress) and learn that its embroidery leads the eye to the wearer’s waist and hands, revealing the local beauty standards at the time. We go to Oman and learn that the indigo used to dye clothes turns from yellow to blue from the oxidation occurring during the long process of creating the dye. In Senegal we discover the ‘stitch resist’ technique, in which embroidered threads are removed after the textile is dyed so that they leave beautiful patterns behind.

But Weaving Connections isn’t just about how the objects were made, but how they were used and the way they are remembered by the Multaka-Oxford volunteers. The volunteers (all named) expand on the significance of each piece and often share personal stories such as weddings to which they wore similar clothes, or of other objects still owned by their family. The exhibition even included poems written by them; I was moved by Niran Altahhan’s poem about the silk scarf she received from a friend back home in Syria, entitled Piece of Home to My Second Homeland. Drawing up vivid memories of a home left behind due to the war, it showed how important being reunited with one’s culture can be.

Screenshot of the exhibition showing a photograph of a veiled woman and the labels underneath.
Screenshot of Weaving Connections, Face Veil with Ornamental Coins (Egypt). Pitt Rivers Museum.

‘Museums conserve and serve human heritage, I am giving my story as part of this human, contemporary heritage, we are becoming part of this heritage but giving it a contemporary view’ — Mohammad Al Awad, Multaka-Oxford Volunteer

This collection of textiles was donated to the PRM by Jenny Balfour-Paul, who travelled across the Middle East, Northern and Western Africa from the 70s to the 90s and purchased clothes, tapestries, jewellery and other artefacts from the places she visited. Painstakingly recording the names of the people who made these objects and the places she bought them from (Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Senegal, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen are all represented), her donation has now resulted in an invaluable exhibition thanks to the Multaka-Oxford volunteers.

(If you’re not familiar with the Multaka-Oxford project, it was inspired by the Berlin Multaka project which trained Syrian refugees to give museum tours in Arabic to other refugees and migrants. The Oxford group works with two collections, the Islamic Scientific Instruments at the History of Science Museum and the collection of textiles from the Arab World at the PRM. The research they undertake results in talks, activities and exhibitions such as Weaving Connections.)

‘Multaka’ translates from Arabic as ‘meeting point’. The museum and its collections are used as a meeting point for people to share their stories. At first I was worried that the exhibition would approach these connections as a chance to amalgamate all these cultures up to a point where I wouldn’t be able to distinguish one from another; this wasn’t the case at all, as the exhibition is set up so that you discover the garments country by country, each piece put into its own cultural context. The ‘meeting points’ as such occur when the volunteers comment on the similarities between different cultures. Done so in a friendly manner, it highlights their value rather than erase the difference that makes each culture and its arts unique.

Screenshot of the exhibition showing a close-up of a silver brooch and the label underneath.
Screenshot of Weaving Connections, Silver Crescent-shaped brooch (Tunisia). Pitt Rivers Museum.

Finally, the exhibition is valuable not just for the audience but for the Pitt Rivers Museum itself: all research produced by Multaka-Oxford will go into the museum’s collection database. This implies that all unique perspectives and personal stories are not there just for the audience’s interest, but that they are considered as genuine and legitimate research. This will diversify future work done with the collections, in turn resulting in richer and more inclusive exhibitions and displays.

Laura Van Broekhoven, Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, has described the exhibition as ‘offering a pluriverse of local and very personal perspectives on Weaving collections.’ The PRM has been hard at work with the idea of the pluriverse* for a while now, engaging with decolonising projects such as including the perspectives of communities whose objects are in the museum, and exploring how labels often uphold racist worldviews. The next event of their Radical Hope webinar series is only a week away, see What’s in our Drawers? to join.

*universe = one world, pluriverse = many worlds.

Museum student; art curator; writer.

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