Center encourages conservation of cultural heritage through Japan visit

Idries Trevathan (right), curator at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, discusses ethnographic materials with Hiroshi Nawata, chairman of the board, Motoko Katakura Foundation for Desert Culture, at the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan.

Representatives from the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (iThra) and Aramco Asia Japan were invited to take part in an international symposium of “Preservation of Cultural Heritage in the Arabian Peninsula” held recently by the Motoko Katakura Foundation for Desert Culture (MOKO-FDC) in the city of Yokohama, Japan.

The one-day symposium is part of a five-year partnership between the Aramco Asia Japan office and MOKO-FDC, which began in 2014 to encourage the preservation and protection of cultural heritage. It is also one of the latest endeavors within the framework of Saudi Aramco overseas citizenship responsibility and Asia Pacific donation program.

Representing Saudi Aramco, iThra's curator Idries Trevathan delivered a keynote speech titled “Islamic Art and the Saudi Public: Conducting Audience Research at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (iThra).” Trevathan spoke about how the audience research conducted at iThra to date has helped to develop goals and objectives for their Islamic Civilization gallery and the museum overall.

“The gallery,” as Trevathan explained “represents a unique undertaking, being the first Saudi cultural institution that devotes a permanent space as well as resources to the study, preservation, and exhibition of Islamic material culture in the broadest sense. This gallery not only offers a unique opportunity to reconnect Islamic objects with the people, regions, and communities in which they originated, but attempts to connect the Saudi audiences to the wider Muslim world, often including peripheral, and overlooked, regions and cultures in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.”

Fostering ties on the same purpose

As part of its citizenship initiatives, Aramco Asia Japan partners, along with MOKO-FDC, supports research and studies on desert culture as well as activities in exhibitions, seminars, and symposiums. The MOKO-FDC was founded in 2013 by the will of late professor Motoko Katakura, the wife of a Japanese diplomat, who pioneered research in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Her research included more than decade-long field work at Wadi Fatima, which took place some 50 years ago and offers enormous insights into the culture of the Middle East, indigenous Arab culture, and the unique sense of values built on the nomadic life.

In 2015, a delegation from MOKO-FDC traveled to Saudi Arabia to seek cooperation and personnel exchanges with members at iThra for future collaboration. The invitation to iThra this time was regarded as a reciprocal action.

Sharing knowledge for tomorrow

The team also visited the National Museum of Ethnology (known as MINPAKU) located in Japan's second largest city of Osaka. The museum, built on the former site of Expo '70 in 1974, is the only university research institute in the world today specializing in cultural anthropology and ethnology. MOKO-FDC is currently working on a plan to hold an exhibition on desert culture in 2019.

The visit began with a museum and repositories tour of the enormous collection of one million ethnographic materials. Visitors were also given a rare opportunity to explore precious materials stored in a special storage area usually off limits to the public.

“It is such a privilege to be able to see such an important collection up close in person,” said Trevathan. “What struck me from seeing these objects from all around the world, without labels and formal presentation, are their amazing similarities among seemingly disparate cultures and traditions.”

Later, the delegation and MINPAKU members exchanged views and ideas for possible collaborative programs to cultivate the understanding of the Saudi culture, particularly in the area of desert cultural heritage.

“There is great potential and much to gain from future collaborations between iThra, the MOKO-FDC, MINPAKU, along with other Saudi cultural institutions, in terms of data/information sharing and facilitating research projects in Saudi Arabia and Japan. The culture and heritage of Saudi Arabia, and the wider region, are rich and diverse and more studies are needed to uncover its many layers,” Trevathan concluded at the end of the visit. “We feel very grateful and honored to be a part of the delegation that celebrates and continues the work and legacy of the late Motoko Katakura, a dedicated anthropologist who devoted her life's work to the study of Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures.”