Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre

Client

IOM – UN Migration

Year

2019 — 2020

Country

Bangladesh

Category

Humanitarian & Development

Cultural Heritage

Type of Work

Project Management

Curating

Strategic Thinking

Research

Cultural Mapping

Capacity Building

Production Design

Art Direction

 

Press & Publications

Donors

  • Swedish International Cooperation Agency (SIDA)

  • Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD)

  • United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)

  • Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)

  • Miinistry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

 

'For decades, the Rohingya people have suffered discrimination, violence and exile. To help them preserve heritage, identity and links to the homeland a cultural memory centre has been created in the Kutupalong refugee camp. Thank you UN Migration for this important project.' — Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

 

The Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre (RCMC)—or Rohingya Kimoti Rosomor Ghor (House of Rohingya Cultural Treasures)was an initiative of IOM, the UN Migration agency. A complex project that involved much research and production in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The goal was to create a conservation–innovation platform providing the Rohingya community with the space and tools so they would be known for their heritage, art and creativity, and not just their marginalisation. It was the first-ever attempt to comprehensively document and preserve the cultural heritage of the Rohingya people. The collection of artworks presented by the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre was framed on one side by the endurance of the Rohingya refugee community in Bangladesh and on the other, by memories of their beloved homeland Arakan; these continue to shape the Rohingya experience and their collective heritage. Combining objects of tangible and intangible heritage, the RCMC collection is a reflection of their past, present and uncertain future.

The assignment took 2 years and involved the overall project implementation, from concept design and strategy, to the research and recruitment of a multidisciplinary team of 16 national staff and consultants and over 100 Rohingya artisans. Following a human-centred design process, research methods included exploratory excursions, focus group discussions, interviews with cultural agents and community workshops. These efforts resulted in an extensive cultural heritage map, driving the production of a comprehensive arts & crafts collection.

Exploring the relation between tradition and innovation, imagination and memory, displacement and belonging, the collection covers a vast array of items, from models of vernacular architecture, boats and furniture to domestic objects made of pottery and basketry, intricate woodwork, ingenious toy-making and colourful paper-crafts. The broad variety of music genres, intergenerational storytelling, and poetry—very popular among the younger generation—, are all examples of the importance of oral culture among the Rohingya people.

 

A comprehensive selection of Rohingya music can be found in the RCMC Youtube channel and the RCMC Instagram page. Games, sports, fashion, customs and beliefs as well as traditional culinary recipes are also part of the RCMC vault, all carefully identified and defined by the Rohingya community. For example, needlework was identified as a common skill among Rohingya women, so a facilitating team was set up with the skills to specifically focus on the production of textile artworks. From individual pieces to collectively-made large scale pieces, these artworks are a portrait of Rohingya identity and traditional domestic life as seen by Rohingya women. The first RCMC exhibition in Dhaka, precisely showcased a selection of these embroidery artworks around the meaning of home, belonging and memory made by the women. The show opened at the Canadian High Commission in December 2020 under the title No Place like Home. 

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We developed and published a comprehensive Visual Dictionary of Rohingya Culture in collaboration with Books Unbound, a trilingual publication aiming to provide the Rohingya community with a culturally appropriate educational tool that features their own unique heritage. Following the successful distribution of the dictionary, we piloted a series of animated films featuring two young Rohingya characters pursuing cultural adventures in the camps.

The artefact collection is exhibited in the in the centre now fully managed by the Rohingya community, and available to the general public through the RCMC website. The centre was planned to include a walk-through exhibition, workshop areas, administration and retail space, library and an outdoor community space to play traditional games like chinlone.

Through this creative platform, Rohingya artisans and artists share their struggles, their expectations and desires, and their efforts to find meaning in their existence. Above all, the arts and crafts of the Rohingya people seek to illuminate their human condition which, fuelled by imagination, allows them to grow and stretch beyond their physical boundaries into the imaginary realm, a place of contemplation, self-care, hope and celebration.

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The project would not be possible without the RCMC team, in particular Razu and Urmi for the trust and hard work from the very first day in March 2019. To all the Rohingya team Azad and Shahida, Enayet, Mr Shibbili, Yousuf, Kurshida, Yakub, Nurul Amin, Omal, Asmoth Ullah and Sawyeddollah. To the long list of artisans. To master Aman Ullah for sharing his precious knowledge. To Tithi and Farzana for bringing in the art. To Tanu for facilitating the creation of many objects. To Masum for the comedy spirit (and the videos). To Tazrian, Fouzia and Zeeshan for all the copywriting (that remains unpublished). To Mustafa for finding needles in a haystack. To Sophie for all the good things she did for us. To Fatmi, Fawzia, Sadya and Rowson for engaging with the community. To Lurdes for the support towards the archive, and to Rahul and Verity for managing it. To everyone in IOM Bangladesh who provided support even if they didn’t understand what we were doing, specially Francis, James, Clem, Lama, Alberto, Farida, Nusraat, Stella and Dymtro. To Olga for planting the 'historical' seed. To Manuel for his maecenas support. To Shahirah Ojuhaat who is now leading the team and to Rizvi Hassan for designing and managing the construction of the building that keeps this community and its cultural memories in a safe place.

 

Memories are the key not to the past but to the future.

© Video courtesy of RCMC/IOM Bangladesh