Keeping you informed about Palestinian cultural heritage research, and our work here at the Archive

Keeping you informed about Palestinian cultural heritage research, and our work here at the Archive

Exhibiting Palestinian cultural heritage

The info on this page is drawn from several documents / brochures we originally wrote for Palestine Costume Archive volunteers, Education Officers and Friends scattered worldwide interested in putting up Palestinian cultural heritage exhibitions - both costume displays and more general heritage displays of the type that are now often exhibited by / about / in Palestinian diaspora communities.

It was originally posted here, on a page on the Archive's staff blog, for those people. However the internet is a wonderful thing and we've discovered a lot of people are accessing this page who have no connection to the Archive. This is great, because it shows a lot more people are wanting to do this, and they are find their way here after googling terms like "Palestinian costume exhibition" or "Palestinian diaspora community display".

It's written to both encourage people to hold exhibitions and to try to counter the growing cultural inaccuracies we are spotting in Palestinian costume exhibitions worldwide.   Most of the people who contact us about exhibitions don't have museum / curatorial expertise, so this page goes into a lot of detail to outline what may be needed. Obviously not all the advice will suit every inquiry but at least some of it should be relevant - as we say all the way through, contact us anytime if you need some more specific advice.

It's in four parts:
  • Introduction section - background re why our museum is providing this info
  • Advice for people wanting to display a museum quality exhibition of Palestinian heritage, specifically costume and textiles
  • Advice for people wanting to organize a more general heritage exhibit or a Palestinian diaspora community exhibit
  • Advice on how to avoid displaying cultural inaccuracies in exhibitions
NOTE: if you are looking for info on recreating Palestinian weddings or wanting something special for your own wedding, write to us direct. We've not posted that doc yet.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney is one of the museums
that holds a small collection of Palestinian costume.


If you are reading this page then you must be interested in trying to organize some kind of exhibition of Palestinian cultural heritage.  Congratulations, says us.  Is such a thing possible, you ask. Yes, we reply. It is. But before we discuss it further details with you, could we request that you read through this "background" section to understand why we respond with reservations.

A lot of people write to us about the practicalities of making a Palestinian cultural heritage exhibition happen in their region.   Their original interest comes from all sorts of things, and most don't have museum expertise. We encourage them as much as we can. We used to say "you can never have too many Palestinian exhibitions". We still agree with that, we've just added a private coda:
"you can never have too many Palestinian exhibitions - as long as their representation of Palestinian cultural heritage is as accurate as possible. Because factual errors about Palestinian culture on display have far reaching consequences"
We know this because part of our mandate is to document cultural heritage collections. We've watched Palestinian heritage being displayed worldwide since the late 1970s. Lots of wonderful exhibitions organized by brilliant, dedicated passionate people. Many of them we are honored to have met.  The problem is, cultural heritage knowledge has been getting lost along the way.

 In the 1970s and early 1980s it was rare to see Palestinian material displayed in many parts of the world, and when it was, the emphasis of the display was primarily political.   It seemed at times that nothing would survive Israel's systematic destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage. But in the West Bank and Gaza, in the diaspora communities of the world, cultural material did survive. It just changed form.

Cultural heritage also survived in museums around the world, as well as in a few private collections. In the 1980s and 1990s Archive staff wrote to museums and private collectors everywhere about their holdings. We traveled worldwide, documenting what had been preserved, whether each item was correctly catalogued, whether it had ever been conserved or exhibited. We are still discovering new holdings.

The result was that when someone contacted the Archive and said - to give one example -  "I'm a second generation Palestinian now living near London.  My family came from Bethlehem. I'm getting married and want to incorporate a little of our traditional cultural into my wedding outfit and the ceremony" we could reply with the info needed. We could send them photos of Bethlehem garments, recommend a handful of books, as well as recommend they visit the British Museum's Museum of Mankind to see the wonderful Bethlehem costumes held there.

These contacts encouraged us to start visiting diaspora communities worldwide to see what heritage remained, again for documentation purposes.  Some families had some original items, others had lost everything but acquired cultural items later, over the years, during trips to the region.

We discovered a lot of the material Palestinian families held was not actually Palestinian - traditional embroidered dresses would be Jordanian, Syrian or Egyptian (often Sinai Desert bedu where cross stitch is practiced).    Many a time we would visit a home having been told of a wonderful early 20th century dress that we must document, only to find modern "six branch" or "shawal" styles.  All these costumes were equally valid forms of Palestinian heritage, it's just an understanding and appreciation of pre 1948 traditional costume was increasingly getting lost.

To try to redress this we launched our traveling exhibition program in 1995 with "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume", which included over fifty 19th and early 20th century Palestinian costumes on loan from the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait as well as examples of post 1948 styles.

Back then it was pretty much impossible to get anything about Palestinians or Palestine displayed in Australia's major museums and galleries.  One of our goals at the Archive was to use the museum standard of our traveling exhibitions to break this impasse.  And we were successful in this. "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume" is now Australia's longest running traveling textile exhibition and has been to over twenty venues, including Australia's two largest museums.

It traveled first to Australian cities with diaspora communities (18 months at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney; Museum Victoria and the National Museum of Textiles, Adelaide).

It was an honour to witness younger members of the Australian Palestinian community observing these exquisite examples of their heritage, and extremely painful to watch as they finally understanding the true depth of what had been lost.

By the 21st century a lot more exhibitions of Palestinian culture were happening, as well as Palestinian film festivals, art exhibitions, etc.   Having experienced their cultural heritage in a museum environment, many diaspora communities now had the confidence to approach museums about their own displays.  This is greatly to be encouraged - it's why we wrote the page you are reading right now :)

However we started to notice that some of these exhibitions contained cultural inaccuracies.  The same inaccuracy would then appear in a later exhibitions because, well, if so and so displayed a mannequin wearing something like this, it must be fine.  Next thing the same inaccuracy turns up in a book, or a website. We lost good friends when we tried to quietly point out what's going on.  Which brings us full circle to the quote we began with:
"you can never have too many Palestinian exhibitions - as long as their representation of Palestinian cultural heritage is as accurate as possible. Because factual errors about Palestinian culture on display have far reaching consequences"
This document will help you plan your exhibition and hopefully will provide some practical advice about how to avoid cultural errors.


First thing is to define exactly what you want to display. Do you want an exhibition of museum standard 19th century Bethlehem costume? Or an exhibition that tells the history of your local Palestinian diaspora community? Or a political exhibition? Your curatorial theme will affect everything from where you draw your exhibits from to your budget and your venue. Once you know what you want re that theme, read on. We cover the two most common ones below. If you've chosen something else you might like to drop us a line for more specific advice.


Okay.  So you want something of the standard of our "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume" exhibition and The Oriental Institute's "Embroidering Identities: A Century of Palestinian Clothing" or the British Museum's "Palestinian Costume"?
  • you need to get in touch with experienced museum professionals or local Palestinian costume collectors or local community members who can provide on site advice and expertise. We can help, but we also highly recommend if you are in the US that you contact the Palestine Heritage Foundation.
  • you can talk to your local museums about curating and displaying a Palestinian costume or cultural heritage exhibition. If they are interested you can ask to be part of the team creating the exhibition. You can also put the museum or gallery in touch with us, so we can advise them 
  • if you are on our side of the planet you can talk to us about borrowing one of our traveling exhibitions. We do all sorts of exhibitions, from primarily text / visual displays for conference venues to proper museum standard exhibitions. These photos are of "Symbolic Defiance: Palestinian costume and embroidery"

  • you can curate the exhibition yourself. Do you have curatorial experience?  If you do, great :). If not, don't panic! We can help with advice re venues, budgets, label and wall text info, photos etc.  But really, you need a curator close to you.
"Chronicles of a Refugee" doco


You're in good company then.  It's great more people are doing this now :)

So. How to start?  Usually when people contact us about wanting a Palestinian cultural heritage exhibition, they've already begun to observe what's around them in their local community. You've probably found a varied collection of:
  • pottery items
  • metal items like old house keys, kohl pots
  • olive wood items 
  • Hebron glass
  • old necklaces and prayer beads
  • embroidered items like cushions
  • kaffiyas + items made from kaffiya fabric
  • embroidered dresses
  • old family photos
  • British Mandate passports
  • old postcards
  • old postage stamps
  • old coins
  • books about old Palestine
  • dabke costumes
  • musical instruments
  • flags and political items
Sometimes what's caught someone's eye is an older item that looks pre1948, a fragment of something larger - a headdress.   Sometimes the point of interest is a story told by an elderly relative, or a fragment of a song sung at a wedding.

So people write and say they want an exhibition and we reply, "look you've got the grounds for
it right there, that locally held Palestinian cultural material will provide a terrific resource for your exhibition.  Even if there isn't much, or if it's mainly tourist products, well, that loss of heritage tells it's own story, which should be brought out in your exhibit. They may not seem very exciting, but when you display them spot lit,  interwoven with their background stories, and add photos, add a soundtrack within the exhibition space,etc, you'd be surprised how powerful such a small exhibition can be"

Here's some tips on how to proceed:
  • Take some time to really think about the subject of your exhibition. You've assembled these items but what's the story you want to tell?  The history of your own family / original place of origin in Palestine? The story of your / the local diasporic community?   A more political exhibition?  Has anyone else curated something similar in concept that resonated with you, that you'd like to build on?  Write down what you'd like to achieve with your exhibition, who you'd like to be involved with creating it, what role you'd like your local Palestinian community to play, what audience you'd like to reach, etc.
  • Always keep your audience in mind, when planning your exhibition.  Are you introducing them to Palestinian culture and issues, or are they familiar with the topic?  Are you exhibiting in the West Bank / Gaza, a diaspora community, or somewhere with few Palestinians?  Are you expecting children, or adults, or both?  All these things effect how you present your exhibition, the kind of text you write and the kind of images you use.
  • Put some thought into selection your venue - look for museums that display local migrant cultures (here in Australia - like Museum Victoria's Immigration Museum and the Migration Museum in Adelaide. Or the new Islamic Museum of Australia. In the US: the Arab American National Museum 
  • Keep in mind a realistic time frame.  A lot of people contact us wanting to do an exhibit right now!  Good exhibitions take time to organize, even longer if you want your exhibition to travel to multiple venues.  Venues like museums and conferences schedule exhibitions years in advance  - this is good, because it will give you plenty of time to get organized, and perhaps even apply for funding.
  • Very few Palestinian exhibitions have decent budgets.  It's very difficult to obtain grants and govt funding.  However we have worked out a few loop holes, talk to us privately about this.  Look for sponsorship in the local community.
  • An exhibition doesn't have to be huge, and be in the biggest museum in town, to have an impact. Some of the best exhibitions we've seen have been small one room displays at conferences or in university display halls.  It's the content that's important.  
  • A lot of people curate their exhibition alone, but if you can, get a small team together.  Some people say don't curate with friends, but we find when working on Palestinian projects it's better to have like minded people with you.  Also look for people who's professional skills add to your own.  Having someone from the local Palestinian community is great. 
  • Make a list of each item, along with who owns it and any further info their possess (age / where it came from /  who gave it to them etc. This is basically your working check list for the exhibition. 
  • You'll also want to do some research on the original towns and villages your community came from, as you'll want to include info about this in your exhibition. Best thing is to ask around the community, find out who's the local diaspora historian. You'll probably find they know where everyone in your local community comes from, and can lend you books and show you maps.  Otherwise, talk to us and / or start googling :) Palestine Remembered is a good place to start.
  • Don't forget to tell the story of your local diaspora community in it's current home.    
  • If you are having trouble finding out about a particular item, send us a photo. We'd also suggest sending us photos of any costumes or textiles in your exhibition so we can identify and evaluate them for you. You don't want to be like the very nice textile dealer online who put up an exhibition of "Palestinian costume" which was entirely Syrian.   We'll confirm the clothing is Palestinian and provide some dating and background.  If it's not Palestinian, then we'll show you how to explain this to the owner and also incorporate it's story into your exhibition in a way that won't make the owner feel bad. 
  • We can then advise you on label text for each item. The main wall texts are up to you.
  • Once you have venues locked in request floor plans so you can get an idea of the size of exhibition you can install.  Run it by us, if you need help with the layout and display.
  • Think how you'd like the community involved. Can they take part in educational programs? ? Also look to the community / local community businesses for sponsorship of things like getting your catalogue and opening night invites printed, getting digital material designed, opening night costs (like providing food and entertainment at the opening / invite everyone to wear traditional dress), borrowing projectors, mannequins, display boxes etc.
Archive exhibition opening invites, brochures etc
  • Insurance is a major nightmare for traveling exhibits these days.  Some of our favorite venues in Australia on university campuses are now impossible because of the high cost of insurance.  It's one of the good things about getting your exhibition into a museum - they'll handle the insurance!   We can help regarding costume and textile valuations, for insurance.
  • Publishing a catalogue. There are major pros and cons to this. Talk to us about any ideas you have.
  • If your venue has a shop and is willing to stock related products. Having some refugee camp / womens' organization embrodiery products is nice - make sure you take them on consignment, because these are expensive. Factor in shipping / custom costs. Make sure the venue's own mark up is not too high. We find smaller items sell best.  Also postcards. 
  • Exhibition layout. Museums will have their own designer, but make sure you are on site during the design stage. Otherwise your exhibition may emphasize on the wrong things and once the design is signed off, changing things can get expensive
  • Use your checklist as the basis for your display labels. Double check whether museum venues have word limits for labels and wall text
  • In regard to visual material, make sure you have copyright permissions sorted.
  • Promote hard. Be wary of museum / government venues that take the exhibition and then don't advertise it - if you can, upfront request outside venue signage and banners.. Allow some money for advertising. Also seek community connections here for local newspapers etc.  Make sure you have the press at your opening event.  
banners out the front of Museum Victoria's Immigration
Museum for the two Archive traveling exhibitions on display
  • Installation. Museums will have their own staff and they'll be great, but make sure you are on site. 
  • If you are installing in a private gallery or university space or whatever, you'll need to do it yourself.  We'll help you get the best out of what funding you have, plus teach you some basic exhibition installation tips, as well as  costume and textile display techniques that won't cost a fortune
  • Archive display of "intifada" political textiles - showing several
    different methods of displaying costumes and textiles
    (flat / framed / stretched / tailor's form / rod / hook / perspex holder)
    Archive display of 1948 Hebron region village costume
    (we can share some great tips for how to make second
     hand mannequins look great)

  • Assemble a portable, cheap but effective installation kit - we can share with you what goes in ours:
    Our Installation Kit :)
  • we can also advise on whether any of your local cultural material needs conservation. Conservation would cost thousands. We'll show you conservator approved ways  you can use garments in similar condtion within your exhibition without causing further damage
    An example of a badly damaged Bethlehem thob
    on loan to the Archive
  • We highly recommend education programs. We brought in members of the local Palestinian community during the run at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Opening weekend events like conferences, seminars, panel discussions, film festivals, embroidery workshops etc are all great. Conducting free public curators tours are also a great way to get across more information
Archive director Jeni taking part in Sonia Nimr's educational
programs at the British Museum
  • As part of the education program we recommend leaving space for a reading area in your exhibition -  show videos, leave photocopies of exhibition notes, reference books etc + provide a guest book - it's good to get feedback that way on your exhibition
Reading room
"Portraits without names: Palestinian costume"
installed at Bathurst Regional Gallery


    what's wrong with this display?

    Display errors occur in Palestinian exhibitions because so few complete examples of costume remain.  Here you are in Chicago or Brisbane or Manchester trying to assemble a coherent display from a handful of cultural items - perhaps a headdress from one family, an embroidered dress from another, a child's dress from somewhere, and a kaffiya from your own home. You've got that nice mannequin that someone loaned waiting for something to wear. It's tempting to just display everything together.

    DON'T DO IT!

    This is how cultural knowledge gets lost.  It's much better to simply exhibit each item separately, with it's own text and accompanying graphics. Even if you don't know anything about the item - well, that tells an important story about cultural loss on it's own.

    Let's give you one example of how things go wrong.  

    This mannequin appeared in an exhibition that toured several venues, which meant it was seen by at least three quite large Palestinian diaspora communities.

    There are three items on the mannequin:
    • 1980s refugee camp triangular shawl
    • 1980s six branch dress
    • 1960s-ish bedu burqa (hard to identify how old)
    In this exhibition no garments were labeled.  Several things are wrong:
    • visitors assumed this represented a "traditional" outfit worn in Palestine
    • complete lack of label provides no idea of their position on the Palestine time line and simply reinforces the Orientalist preconceptions of visitors to the exhibition
    • it mixes bedu and fellahin, who had very different cultural traditions. Some people don't even count the Sinai bedu as "Palestinian"
    • visitors came out of this exhibit thinking Palestinian women traditionally veiled 
    • Pre 1948 headdresses were very different - you can see examples of Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah below:
    • the refugee camp shawl was a style designed to be worn with a shawal dress in the 1980s. While these did become - and still are - popular in the West Bank, the shawl is worn as a shawl, not a head covering. 
    • the dress is a 6 Branch style, not the shawal, and often worn with a (usually embroidered) belt and white headscarf.
    What type of display would have avoided making mistakes?

    If we'd displayed these items we'd have hung all three items flat on a wall on rods, quite apart from each other. We'd have provided extended text and photos, showing how the garments were worn.

    Here's a photo of 6 Branch dresses being worn in Jerusalem in the early 1980s. If you want to exhibit 6 Branch dresses on mannequins, team them with a simple white head scarf and don't forget you need a belt.

    Here's how we displayed costumes including 6 Branch styles from the 1980s:

    The bedu burqa should be accompanied by extended text discussing bedu society and culture, with photos like this German postcard.

    If you a putting together a Sinai Desert bedu outfit on a mannequin, it's got quite a lot of parts:
    • dress
    • several belts
    • head veil
    • burqa
    • beaded items and jewelry
    • silver jewelry
    Here's a good example from the Oriental Institute's exhibition:

    Here's two more from Archive exhibitions:

    This is just one example. We could provide lots more. So. Any concerns about what goes with what, just drop us a line we're happy to help :)


    Anonymous said...

    wow. thank you thank you thank you for sharing all this. saved us making really bad mistakes


    Anonymous said...

    Thank you from me too. I learned a lot.