Feature written by Timothy Roby and Hilana Alouani Bibi
A new museum opened in Marrakech just last year (2016) – but before I tell you about it, I should explain the circuitous routes by which this feature reaches the British Moroccan Society via an Englishman and his Moroccan wife in Sydney, Australia. I am a native Lancastrian and met Hilana, a born-and-bred Marrakchia, at the University of York in 2009. I was studying Philosophy and Politics and my experience of North Africa was limited to a distant one-day visit to Tangiers from Spain; she studied Linguistics and spoke enough languages to make my head hurt. It was the start of a journey for me into a culture which I have come to adore and admire. Hilana and I currently live in Sydney and the museum is run by her parents and sisters, but we maintain close contact and assist with the online presence.
The Heritage Museum – or Musée du Patrimoine – is a family-run project. We showcase the private collection of my parents-in-law, Abdellatif Alouani Bibi and Hind Sarmi. This collection has been formed over decades as the family has amassed a remarkable collection of Moroccan heritage items through antique hunts and family inheritance. It is truly the work of a family with unquestionable local knowledge – this kind of long-term painstaking acquisition is surely only possible with the exceptional and enduring passion for their own heritage that I have come to understand drives the family. It has withstood the test of time and the temptations to sell objects in the short term. I believe it is a testament to a mode of cultural preservation and celebration driven by regular citizens with rooted connections and open minds. The museum has been wholly funded in private by the family and operates in order to share a cultural heritage rather than return a profit.
The setting alone is a striking 17th century Moorish riad and is situated centrally in Marrakech’s medina, just a five-minute walk from Jemaa El Fna square. The collection includes ancient rural pottery, Jewish Moroccan artefacts, Berber jewellery, Andalucian embroidery, coins from various eras and tribal rugs. The family’s particular expertise is in fact in Berber rugs, from knowledge passed down through four generations to a shop in Essaouira, as well as an extensive and rather priceless private collection. The museum also has a small art gallery section, a traditional Moroccan living room, and a roof terrace (serving food and, naturally, mint tea) with marvellous views of the medina.
On my very first visit to Marrakech and the family home some years ago, I was most struck by how every wall, corner and spare room seemed to be overflowing with antiques and pieces of history. Like a treasure trove, I would open a drawer and find countless manuscripts, daggers, coins, photographs, jewellery and so on. I am genuinely delighted, even after my relatively short connection with the family, to see that it has finally become possible to showcase publicly some (there are still more behind the scenes!) of these heritage items. They document the history of this corner of north-west Africa in all its colours and eras. Our desire now is simply to share this collection and the passion that goes with it. We have received touching reviews from visitors hailing from all over the world and we hope to build a network of friends who might appreciate what the museum has to offer. That begins with an invitation to visitors in Marrakech, and it also means welcoming any contact with people who share an interest and passion in Moroccan heritage, history and culture.