Baghdadi Museum of Folklore celebrates the old ways of Iraq

Museum offers a nostalgic journey into past daily life of Baghdadis.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Past magic. Life-size wax models on display at the Baghdadi Museum of Folklore.                             (Oumayma Omar)
Past magic. Life-size wax models on display at the Baghdadi Museum of Folklore. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD - Though it is described as the Iraqi “Madame Tussaud’s,” the Baghdadi Museum of Folklore is not meant to celebrate famous people but to commemorate bygone customs and the old lifestyle of Baghdad’s residents.

Located in an old, traditional building near the Tigris River, the museum, unlike London’s famous wax gallery, offers a nostalgic journey into the past daily life of Baghdadis through scenes featuring life-size wax models.

The museum building erected under the Ottoman rule in 1869 was initially used as the publishing house of the province of Baghdad. It was converted into a museum in 1970 at the behest of Baghdad’s mayor, who saw it as the best way to document the city’s past.

More than 80 scenes featuring 450 wax statues represent different rituals, folk crafts, trades, professions, local customs and street life. One scene illustrates matriarchy in Iraqi society through mothers’ attachment to their sons. The character “Oum Ibrahim” admonishes her son “Ibrahim” for leaving the family home immediately after his wedding, forgetting about his mother while in the arms of his beautiful bride.

The scene is a reproduction of a traditional Baghdadi home. The decor is simple with old paintings and wall mattresses adorning the walls and statues of women clad in colourful traditional dishdashas sitting around.

“The scene reflects the kind of relationship that existed in the past between mothers and daughters-in-law. Some of the characters depicted in the museum, including ‘Oum Ibrahim’ are common in oriental societies. Many oriental mothers carry the same feelings towards their male offspring… They don’t like to share them,” said Balkis Kazem with a laugh.

“I am keen on visiting the museum every now and then as it commemorates our popular and social heritage, which is withering away. The children also enjoy watching the statues and the scenes that mirror a world that is strange to them,” said Kazem, who was touring the museum with her three young children.

Another scene reproduced a traditional wedding procession, or “zaffa,” in which the groom, accompanied by family and friends, proceeds to the bride’s home amid applause, music and dances.

“The scenes replicate with lots of details a time frame and a way of life that was much healthier and more beautiful than the present,” Kazem said. “Everything was simpler; relationships were more transparent and genuine. Development and modernism made us lose our social heritage and traditions.”

There are scenes of circumcision rituals, afternoon tea gatherings, women baking bread and grilling fish and of a traditional basement, where people sleep in hot summer days.

The Baghdadi museum was damaged during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, causing it to suspend its operations. Explosions led to the collapse of ceilings, the shattering of windows and ruined some scenes. The museum was restored and reopened in August 2008.

Museum Director Jassem al-Baydani admitted that much restoration work needs to be done on the scenes and the wax models. “We have devised annual plans to modernise the premises, renew the scenes and replace the 430 statues despite funding limitations and the difficult security and economic conditions,” Baydani said.

Among the renovated scenes is a great depiction of traditional Maqam singers and Iraqi musicians, Baydani said, adding “specialised teams of artists and sculptors are working on replacing the old statues and restoring the facilities in the building, which goes back to 150 years.”

“The museum is a very popular and family-friendly place to learn about local folklore and past lifestyles,” Baydani said. “Our revenues have been increasing constantly although the entry fee is equivalent to less than $1. Regular visits by students are organised by the Ministry of Education to keep children aware of Baghdad’s history and heritage.”

Art student Walid Saleh described the museum as a symbol of Iraqis’ resilience and attachment to their social heritage that they try to transmit from one generation to another.

“It is wonderful to see that both children and adults are aware of Baghdad’s history. The city carries a lot of past magic and the museum depicts scenes reminiscent of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ tale,” Saleh said as he took photos of the settings.

He noted, however, that the place needs to be upgraded.

“Many scenes and models have to be redone; besides, signs and information explaining the scenes are lacking,” he said. “Nonetheless, the museum remains a place close to the heart of Iraqis and a reminder of good old days.”