Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.

Photo credit: Mahmoud Merjan

Today we’re with Rachel Dedman, an independent curator and writer based in Beirut, in conversation of the waxwork museums of Lebanon, including the Marie Baz Museum in Beiteddine, the Qasr Moussa (Moussa’s Castle) in Deir el-Qamar, and the Waxworks Museum of Jbeil. You previously brought up the materiality of the wax, and its connection to the history of Lebanon, but first I want to know: What was your first experience in one of these museums? How would you describe them to someone who has never visited? 

I love a niche museum, and stumbled across a house of wax when driving in a rural part of Lebanon in 2013. That particular place—‘Moussa’s Castle’—is a multi-storied faux-chateau, whose lower floors are populated by miscellaneous relics of dubious antiquity, but whose upper rooms are filled with waxen figures. Initially these are dedicated to traditional Lebanese customs: lumpen figures awkwardly cook, grind flour, and till imaginary soil via hydraulics. Beyond that, the museum tells the story of Moussa (its eponymous founder, who still roams the halls aged 90), in semi-autobiographical mise-en-scenes. Up the road in Deir el-Qamar, the Marie Baz wax museum is dedicated to Lebanese political history, gathering in awkward assembly obscure eighteenth century figures alongside contemporary political leaders. Cheikh Rustom Elias Baz (1819-1902) glances concernedly at his neighbour, Emir Bachir Chehab II (1767-1850), while Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839)—a British aristocrat who left England to travel the Middle-East—raises a casually waxen hand to converse with Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), iconic Lebanese writer. Next door Walid Jumblatt and Hassan Nasrallah mingle with Jacques Chirac and George Bush Senior, while another room hosts an ancient desk and tattered Lebanese flag as backdrop to an impossible scene: every Lebanese president in history competing for standing room, grinning darkly. A dank, strip-lit basement houses an assortment of local nuns and notable Popes. 

I became compelled by such spaces in Lebanon, visiting more as I came across them. Beyond the obvious absurdity of the poorly-rendered waxworks—mostly dusty, unlifelike and increasingly discoloured—I was struck by the serious ways in which these museums attempt to represent Lebanese history in a country without authoritative or singular national narratives. Wax is fascinating to me: it has the ability to eerily mimic flesh, to achieve mimesis, yet at the same time is a material that hovers on the brink of dissolution, able to be moulded and remoulded again. I felt sure there was a correlation between the use and formation of such spaces and the imperfect, complex writing or unwriting of Lebanese history and constitution of local identity. 

Photo credit: Mahmoud Merjan

Is there anything similar to them outside of Lebanon? Why do you think they’re such a local concept? 

Waxwork museums exist everywhere, I think. Madame Tussauds in London is perhaps most famous. But the ubiquity and prevalence of such small, informal, family-run institutions in Lebanon is, I imagine, unusual. And while Mme Tussauds is about spectacle—of death and the guillotine when it first began, celebrity mimesis today—such museums in Lebanon appear less obsessed with likeness on its own terms. They are performative spaces that allow for the subjective construction of historical narrative—one that is all surface, constituted by a linear roll-call of characters. Museologically, these are museums not interested in objects or the material deposits of history, rather in the speculative three-dimensional versions of its almost uniquely male players. The awkwardness of the results reflects the problematics of the attempt itself.

The makers of these institutions (Moussa, the Baz family) have the ability to mould, like wax, arbitrary versions of shared history—selecting figures based on sectarian leanings, political inclinations and family agenda. Subjectivity is an element, of course, that applies to all historiographic processes, but is particularly problematic in these spaces—which claim to represent public Lebanese history while remaining absolutely personal.

Photo credit: Mahmoud Merjan

What do you hope to see happen with them in the future? Do you believe they’re underrepresented in the canon of global art? Why? 

I’d love to initiate a project in such spaces: to invite artists, writers and historians to intervene in these museums and engage with the kinds of history they propose. These spaces are underrepresented in the art world, of course, because they aren’t part of it at all. Such museums operate entirely divorced from contemporary global art or formal institutional historiography. They are considered irrelevant, dusty relics, and wax an unsexy, old-fashioned medium. And yet wax as a material—slippery, liminal, unstable—and these museums as places—strange, mundane and invisible—address elements of the process of writing history that feel absolutely contemporary.

Photo credit: Mahmoud Merjan