Preserving North Africa's Cultural Heritage

The life work of a Dutch researcher and collector has led to the creation of an institute dedicated to the cultural heritage of Morocco, the Sahara and adjacent regions. By Beat Stauffer

Bert Flint (photo: Beat Stauffer)
Since 1957 Bert Flint has made this country his home, leaving only once for an extended study trip to Iran

​​Bert Flint has lived in Morocco for over 50 years. After dedicating decades of his life to researching the rural culture of Morocco and cultural exchanges between Northern Africa and Sahel states, the Dutchman has donated his valuable collection to the University of Marrakech.

The university intends to use Flint's private museum, known as "La Maison Tiskiwin", to create an institute dedicated to researching the cultural heritage of the Sahara and adjacent regions. The official opening of the new "Institut Bert Flint pour le Patrimoine du Nord-Ouest Africain" is planned for June 2007.

An inquisitive soul moves to Marrakech

Flint was a young man when he first set foot on Moroccan soil. Born in 1931 near the Dutch city of Groningen, this inquisitive soul was so enchanted by this country that he immediately moved to Marrakech after completing his studies in Hispanic culture and literature, Arab culture and literature, and art history.

The High Atlas (photo: Larissa Bender)
The High Atlas, also called the Grand Atlas Mountains, Morocco's tallest mountain range

​​Since 1957 he has made this country his home, leaving only once for an extended study trip to Iran where he learned about early Islamic art. In late May 2006, shortly after his 75th birthday, Flint decided to donate his valuable collection and his splendid house in the old city of Marrakech to the local university.

Let's take a brief look at the man behind this remarkable collection. For over 25 years, Flint taught at a high school in Marrakech and at the "Ecole des Beaux-Arts", an art school in Casablanca. During his early years in Morocco he was primarily interested in the Andalusian-Arab tradition, which is very much alive in cities like Fes and Marrakech.

A unique collection

Later, in the 1970s, he increasingly focused on rural culture and its many cultural manifestations. At a time when hardly anyone took an interest in such things, he began to collect textiles, jewelry, furniture, carpets, and other daily objects.

He undertook adventurous journeys, venturing far and wide across remote areas of the High Atlas and the pre-Saharan regions to learn about the Berber-influenced rural culture. Flint always remained outside of academic milieus, which he regarded with great skepticism throughout his work.

In 1981, Flint opted for early retirement to devote himself entirely to his collecting and researching activities. Four years later he opened his private collection to the public, housed in a magnificent old manor. Since then, the permanent collection of La Maison Tiskiwin, named after a dance in the High Atlas, has drawn large crowds of visitors.

Researching cultural exchanges

Over the past decade, the interests of this indefatigable researcher and collector have increasingly turned to the Saharan region and the age-old cultural exchanges between Morocco and today's Sahel states. Flint is convinced that these connections over the centuries have had a much greater effect on the Alaouite Kingdom than Moroccans generally believe.

photo: Larissa Bender
Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna

​​His research trips have increasingly taken him to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and the southernmost oases of Morocco.

In recent years, Bert Flint has searched for a more long-term solution for his museum. He pursued three possibilities. First, he tried to integrate his private museum in an "Institut d’Etudes Sahariennes," and recommended to the king that this new institute be founded by His Royal Highness. Second, he looked into transferring his collection to a foundation established for this purpose. Third, he sought a solution in cooperation with the Royal Institute for Berber Culture (IRCAM).

An institute to enhance cooperation

Ultimately, Flint decided to collaborate with the University of Marrakech. In late May 2006, he donated his house in the old city and a major portion of his collection. In return, the university has made a commitment to create the Institut Bert Flint pour le Patrimoine du Nord-Ouest-Africain in La Maison Tiskiwin. The opening of the new institute in June 2007 will coincide with an international colloquium.

Flint is convinced that the newly-found solution provides the best guarantee for the continuation of his research work. In an interview with Qantara, he said that this academic framework opens up doors for cooperation with the Sahel countries.

He adds that the University of Marrakech has assured him that it will help interested students and doctoral candidates from these countries to receive research grants from international institutions. These scholars can then acquire a PhD from the department of "Tourism and Cultural Heritage" at the "Faculté de Lettres Cadi Ayyad", thus underlining the important role played by sustainable tourism in preserving the cultural heritage of a country.

The university of Marrakech has also said that it will introduce a new art history degree, the first ever such program ever at a Moroccan institution of higher learning.

Opening this summer

Preparations are currently underway to launch the activities of the new "Bert Flint Institute" this coming summer. In addition to the permanent exhibition, which will remain open to the general public, the institute will have a research library, create study areas for students and doctoral candidates, and provide space for events.

Bert Flint will in the future act as the curator of the collection, but the official head of the institute will be a professor from the University of Marrakech.

The "Bert Flint Institute" will attempt to enhance the rather meager institutional cooperation between the countries of North and Western Africa. A main area of focus is on building close ties between universities and museums. Concrete steps have already been taken with the "Musée Nationale du Niger" in Niamey.

Although he has already reached a respectable age, Flint continues to pursue other projects. In Beni Mellal, the large provincial city at the foot of the Middle Atlas, he is negotiating for the creation of a "Musée de la Transhumance". If this succeeds, Flint intends to make his collection of textiles available as a permanent loan.

The determined collector and researcher also intends to ask the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and other internationally active organizations to support the project.

Beat Stauffer

© 2007

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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