After years of starts and stops, the Bardo National Museum, often called the “jewel of Tunisian heritage,” finally reopened this year. Located in a 17th-century Beylic palace in the suburban city of Le Bardo that is also home to the country’s parliament, the newly renovated museum has welcomed several thousands of visitors in the months since its reopening in September.
The Bardo’s most recent closure came about two years ago following President Kais Saied’s decree to shutter parliament, which shares the same building. That was the latest in a series of recent closures that began during the 2011 revolution. It closed again in 2015 for a brief period following a terrorist attack at the museum that claimed the lives of at least 25 people, and that also caused damage to the building. The museum once again closed in 2020 because of pandemic lockdowns, when Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and suspended the Assembly of the Representatives of the People.
During this most recent period of closure, the museum carried out a building conservation and restoration project that included expanding the museum’s exhibition spaces, with new works going on view and relocating some of its most-visited objects. Updates include a new hall of sarcophagi and reimagined displays for the Islamic department, improving the presentation of objects. Several of the museum’s display cases which had been damaged in the deadly terrorist attack in 2015 have now been restored, signalling a desired return to normalcy.
The Bardo Museum, which was first established under French colonial rule in 1888, had faced a severe drop in visitorship—and tourism to Tunisia more broadly—since the 2015 terrorist attack, but visitors have begun to return, both of locals and tourists. The Tunisian Ministry of Cultural Affairs reported 2,700 visitors in the museum’s first week of reopening, 900 of which visited on opening day. Bardo Museum director Fatma Naït Yghil said she was “proud of the work carried out” by her team, adding that police and civil defense units have been deployed “to ensure the safety of visitors.”
The palatial Bardo Museum contains Tunisia’s national archaeological and ethnological treasures, with a diverse collection spanning 40,000 years of civilisation, including the world’s largest collection of mosaics, many of which are monumental in scale and hang covering the walls and ceilings. Among the highlights are Virgil’s Alcove, depicting the Roman poet with his muses, and The Triumph of Neptune, which pictures the triumphant sea god Neptune in a chariot, framed by women representing the four seasons in each corner, surrounded by agricultural scenes and blossoming plants.
The Islamic department boasts the largest number of folios of the “Blue Quran,” dated between the late 9th and early 10th century, (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also holds a folio), as well as a selection of ceramics from the Maghreb and Anatolia. Other popular attractions include the Carthage Room, the main atrium of the palace lined with large marble sculptures; the gallery of Roman sarcophagi and Christian baptisteries; a collection of Punic jewels; and ancient Greek artifacts from a shipwreck off Mahdia that were recovered in the 1940s.
A larger-than-life marble statue of Concordia, the Roman goddess of harmony, now greets visitors to the museum, placed near the entrance alongside a commemorative plaque memorialising the victims of the 2015 attack. Yghil described the symbolic decision to place Concordia at the entrance as “a message of peace.”
Inaugurated in October, a new hall dedicated to the Treasure of Chemtou features a display of the 1,648 golden coins found in a pottery jug (dated before 420 CE) that was done in collaboration with the German Archaeological Institute. Discovered in 1993, the treasure is one of the largest and most significant archaeological finds of gold coins in the Maghreb region.
Finnish-Tunisian artist Dora Dalila Cheffi described a recent visit to the Bardo as busy with many local families in attendance. “I am really happy that the museum is back again,” she told ARTnews. She found the updated displays for The Triumph of Neptune and a famed second-century statue of Venus to be impactful. “I portray a lot of women in my art, it’s interesting to see how women are portrayed in different contexts,” she said.
The museum’s significance lies in the breadth of its collection, tracing Tunisia’s ancient history, and the displays are organized by period, corresponding to its various departments including pre-history, Phoenician-Punic civilization, the Numidian world, the underwater Mahdia collection, and late antiquity and the earliest days of Islam. The building, which was converted from the palace that once housed the ruler’s harem, itself is an architectural marvel, resplendent with patterned tile panels, decorated floors, and painted and gilded ceilings.
Tunisian-born art historian and archaeologist Ridha Moumni said the Bardo’s reopening is significant because it is an “important educational tool” for Tunisian students. “Over the last decade, the Bardo has been a mirror of Tunisian politics,” he told ARTnews. “It’s important for cultural institutions to be protected from any political events.”
The reopening of the Bardo comes at a time when Tunisia’s cultural offerings are rapidly expanding, including L’Art Rue’s Dream City festival, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation’s Jaou festival (its next edition will be staged in October 2024), and a growing landscape of art spaces, galleries, and residencies.
French-Tunisian writer Farah Abdessamad told ARTnews that the Bardo’s much-awaited reopening this fall means that “the institution represents much more than a cultural offering among many other heritage sites in Tunis. In many ways, the Bardo channels a spirit of resistance to the hardships that Tunisia is going through; politically, its collection demands that we look at ourselves, Tunisians, as people who have survived the ebbs and flows of empires and regimes. This connection to the past gives us hope when everything else feels hopeless.”