You cannot really review the Bardo National Museum, any more than you can kick around Mount Everest. The few unconnected observations which follow are meant only as marginalia in your guidebook.
I first travelled to the Bardo by taxi and it cost twenty dinars. I came back by tram and this cost around a fortieth of the outbound fare. I guess that I must be a glass-half-full miser, because I was more delighted by my savings on the tram than I was upset by the taxi’s hyperinflation.
Of course, twenty dinars amounts to barely seven pounds, and in a country as needy as Tunisia, spending extravagantly is a moral imperative. Still, I thereafter travelled to the Bardo only on the Arabs’ tram. It seems more authentic and there is also greatly more for you to see. Though the travel guides warn you that most Tunisian bars and cafés are no-go areas for women, aboard the tram both sexes are squashed together into a steaming jumble of bodies. It comes to resemble an orgy without the sex. I am so enclosed in warm flesh that I have the undeniable sensation of being back in the womb.
I learned how to ride the tram to the Bardo with some help from the Wanderlusty blog. Wanderlusty’s advice is clear and, to my sizeable relief, correct.
It took me three separate visits to get the most out of the Bardo. Somebody with no interest in history could probably fit every emotion that the museum triggers into a single day. One such as myself, a nodding flower of art and history, will require much longer to comfortably drink everything up.
My first visit was devoted to obtaining an overview of the Bardo’s size and floor plan, but to also getting all of my morbid curiosity about last year’s terrorist attack done and out of the way with. In subsequent visits, I grew increasingly dubious about the iconography which festoons the consecutive entrances to the museum.
Inside, the victims of the atrocity are commemorated on a stone tablet which looks like a village war memorial, as if they were soldiers who had together made the ultimate sacrifice. Since the dead individuals and families were unconnected, aside from in their nicely balanced internationalism, they look like they have come to share a common shallow grave.
Outside there is a beautiful mosaic portrait of the victims which has been assembled by Tunisian artists. I get confused by this because after several headcounts there still seems to be more names than faces (perhaps some of the families withheld permission). I am also sad to report that the image of one of the victims has been vandalised, with either a real or a fake bullet hole.
The aspirant dignity of the memorials is undermined by the decision to preserve the damage from the gunfire, to the building’s walls and display cases, as if for the indefinite future. You take what you bring to this, and I had been at first moved by the way in which the jihadists’ detritus is dwarfed by the surrounding Roman grandeur. Yet the holes will have to be cleaned up one day and their topical novelty is being simply exploited in the meantime. Guides reportedly lead tourists from hole to hole. The bullets killed and were meant to kill; the holes are not in any way comparable to the cultural achievements around them and they should not become exhibits. The building’s marks of tragedy should not be worn proudly, like battle scars.
UK visitors to the Bardo will be faintly shocked to learn that there is little more to it than a museum. The electronic guides are broken; the two cafés have been replaced by a single irascible vending machine, which serves puny plastic cans of sweet coffee. There is still a gift shop and a small, cheerful restaurant over the road outside, but it is hard not to agree with The National’s Tom Westcott that the Bardo looks in trouble.
Previously, the Bardo had been liberally topped up with holidaymakers decanted from passing cruise ships. There are probably fewer paying visitors here today than there are names on the memorials. Wandering around the lonely halls of this old palace, I feel like the Bey abandoned during a servants’ holiday. I cross paths with roaming hordes of schoolchildren (it sounds like they are applauding each mosaic in turn after their teacher has introduced them) but they get free entry. There is not enough footfall to meet the costs of keeping such a vast, monumentally important facility open.
The injustice of this shrieks to high heaven. The Bardo should roar like a mill as Europe’s educated peoples churn incessantly through it. I can think of friends and family back in the UK who I would like to drag straight to the Bardo, and whose lives would be enriched beyond computation by encountering it. The museum is currently inaccessible, however, to all but the most determined independent travellers.
I should end by emphasising that the security personnel are doing a constant and thorough job. There are two bag searches prior to entry and the police questioned me with interest on my third visit, obviously alerted to my repeated trips. The large perimeter fence is a weakness but I saw police posted at different points around it. The building is naturally a fortress and if it ever again came under attack, the layout would strongly favour the defenders. I was my usual relaxed, dreamy self for all of the time that I was there.