The Educational Role of Museums in Syria


The museum’s role in education has been addressed in Western literature since the 19th century and, in the 20th century, was further embraced and supported by many Western governments as education and learning were made central tenets of museums. The importance of an educational responsibility has also theoretically been recognised by museums in Syria. However, due to diverse social and political factors, the practical application of an educational role for museums remains mostly absent in the country.

This article will discuss the educational role of museums in Syria, and their impact in engaging Syrian youngsters with the cultural heritage of their country. It will first discuss the development of museums as educational centres in the West, before examining the policies of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM). It will then analyse the Syrian unified curricula and its role in building a relationship with museums. Finally, it will examine the most recent initiatives that have been launched to bring museums and educational institutions together,  and their impact on Syrian youth and the future of public engagement with Syria’s national cultural heritage.

The Educational Role of Museums in Syria - Features - Atassi Foundation

National Museum of Damascus

Background: Museums as Educational Spaces

The opening up of private collections in the 18th/19th century in Europe was an eloquent symbolic assertion of the new ideals of egalité, fraternité et liberté. This was a moment for educating the public and bringing culture – in the sense of high culture – to the masses.[1] The opening up of big public museums in the 18th century across Europe – such as the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London – took place in tandem with the Enlightenment. These museums included teaching in their mission and by the early 19th century exhibits were seen as a source of learning and the potential advancement of society.[2] In the late 19th and early 20th centuries countries such as Germany, Great Britain and France, amongst others, had begun to provide financial support for the development of educational programmes in museums.[3]

The First and Second World Wars marked a further turning point as political changes – including the division of Eastern and Western Europe – left their impact on museum practices. In Eastern Europe, in countries that fell under Communist regimes, museums were required to use cultural and educational activities to support pro-regime objectives and, as a result, they stagnated.[4] Meanwhile, the democratic societies of Western Europe followed a different path and the museum’s role in education was seen as an opportunity. As such, their expansion into this area moved at a rapid pace under governmental, financial support. In the UK, for example, various legislation linked museum collections to the new National Curriculum (established in the 1980s), which opened up opportunities for museums to work more easily with schools and saw rapid growth between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.[5] In the USA, however, the role of museums as educational institutions without boarders had already been well established much earlier. By the 1930s, 15 per cent of all museums in the United States offered educational programmes. Public outreach was offered through tours for schoolchildren and through printed educational materials, along with the loan of objects for classroom use. In 1973 the American Association of Museums created a standing professional committee on education, and, more recently, in 1991, through its landmark report ‘Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums’, the American Association of Museums (AAM) advocated that legislative and financial support for museums as educational institutions be made a priority.[6] 

This governmental support of museums has also been reflected in the literature produced by museums in the West – particularly in the UK – which is not the case currently within Syria.[7]  Scholars have argued that education must be considered by museums as a crucial mission for their existence.[8] In 2007 Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, one of the key scholars in this domain, presented the outcome of educational programmes in UK museums though data gathered through qualitative and quantitative methods coming out of the experience of teachers, students and museum educators. This study was important as it demonstrated that the learning experience can be properly assessed,[9] providing a way to measure the tangible impact of investment in museums’ educational programming. Some of its results included defining tools to measure learning through museums within an intellectual framework that could be used by researchers. It also explored the teacher’s perception of the outcomes of their students learning through museums as well as the most highly valued outcome of museum-based learning for both students and teachers.

The Educational Role of Museums in Syria - Features - Atassi Foundation

Les Annales Archéologiques de Syrie

Museums in Syria and their Role in Education

There are almost 30 museums in Syria divided between the 14 governorates of the country, all of which are administrated by the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). Most house archaeological collections,[10] alongside museums such as the Army Museum (Damascus), the Museums of Popular Traditions (Aleppo/Damascus) and the Museum of Qasr Al-Azem (Damascus). The National Museum of Damascus includes objects across all Syrian regions and eras, while the National Museum of Aleppo is dedicated to objects from northern Syria. The rest of the country’s regional museums house objects from local archaeological sites.

The DGAM has been the sole administrative authority overseeing Syria’s cultural heritage (museums, archaeological sites, etc.) since independence in 1946. As such, it should also be responsible for developing the museum's role in education within the country. In order to better understand how this has been thought of by the DGAM, it is useful to examine its journal Les Annales Archéologiques de Syrie and other DGAM publications. As it is edited and curated by the DGAM’s directors and staff, it can be considered a clear indication of the general policies of the entity since 1951, when the journal was first issued.[11]

Going through examples of these publications, most contain straight-forward descriptive features, talking about the objects in these museums[12] and their historical value, but few write about the bigger picture of the potential educational role of museums in Syria. While the former is educational, it does not directly address the impact of education on the younger generation, which would be fostered by the latter. One example, however, ‘Museums and Education’, a 1965 report by Adel Salim Abdel Hak, then-general director of the DGAM, was presented at an international meeting of experts about the role of museums in education. Here, Abdul Hak wrote about the problems Syrian museums were faced with and the intention of the DGAM to open a new set of museums – and not only archaeological ones – in order to better serve and educate the Syrian people.[13]

These changes did not take place, unfortunately, with the subsequent change in the political agenda in Syria during the 1970s onwards. This was reflected in the change in title and content of the DGAM’s journal, which went from Les Annales Archéologiques de Syrie to Les Annales Archéologiques Arabes Syriennes (AAAS), as its focus shifted from museums within Syria to museums in the wider Arab world. Indeed, since the 1970s all of the articles within the AAAS have been about museums in the Arab world and not a single article after has mentioned the Syrian museums or their role in the society or the education[14]. The lack of governmental focus on local museums has resulted in little to no relationship between museums and the Syrian public, in turn depriving museums of the ability to take an educational role as the average Syrian family will not  take the initiative to visit a museum with their children. One of the few chances for museums to fulfill this role is through a direct link with schools, however, according to Dr. Yousef Kanjou, a former director of the National Museum of Aleppo, there is an obvious gap between schools and museums. Prior to the conflict of 2011, school visits, while fairly routine, were conducted with no strategy or educational planning: large numbers of students arrived without any prior coordination with the museum nor were any instructive activities conducted by their teachers. The situation was similar at historical and archaeological sites,[15] and has been experienced first-hand by the author during their experience as a volunteer at the Aleppo National Museum between 2005–2006.

Syrian National Curricula and Museums

The education system in Syria is composed of six years of elementary school, three years in middle school and three years of high school. Education is compulsory from the first till the ninth grade (elementary and middle school). The curriculum is unified through the country and is decided by the Syrian Ministry of Education. This system means that students from all Syrian regions receive the same information about history, geography and modern political issues and go through the same general exams by the end of the middle and high school to get their national certificates. This unified curriculum reflects clearly the political vision of the Syrian government.

The reason the Syrian unified curricula is such an important resource is that it is one of the few such sources available, particularly considering that the internet is relatively new in Syria and the resources of public libraries around the country are poor, if not entirely absent – though big cities and the capital could be an exception. It is also, in light of the current disorganization around educational outreach by museums, the most important source for Syrian children to learn about the eras of history covered by the collections of the nation’s museums.

Within this context, as a subject, ancient history  has been included in the unified curricula. Ancient civilizations and ancient sites in Syria are covered twice – briefly –  in the formal curriculum: first when students are around 11/12 years old and again when they are 15/16 years old. In both instances the textbooks cover ancient civilizations from sites such as the Bronze Age city of Ebla in Northern Syria and the ancient site of Mari in Eastern Syria but do not provide enough information for the reader/student to either value or understand the importance of these sites and ancient kingdoms within the context of Syrian history.[16]

As a result, Syrians have learned very little about the ancient past of their country. Furthermore, most Syrian people, despite their own ethnic and historical diversity, perceive the ancient past of the country as being distinctly ‘Arab’ in origin. This does not match the displays and explanations of Syrian national museums, where objects are presented through a different technical and historical context without any reference to Arab ethnicity.[17] This in turn creates even a bigger gap between how its history is understood by the country’s museums and Syrians themselves.

The Educational Role of Museums in Syria - Features - Atassi Foundation

First Ebla Empire. Source: Wikipedia

Syrian Initiatives to Bridge the Gap between Museums and the Syrian People

In late 2000s Syrian authorities showed interest in improving the relationship between Syrians and their cultural heritage. At this time, many projects and initiatives took place which were aimed at improving – either directly or indirectly – the relationship between the public, archaeological heritage and museums. Accordingly, Syrian newspapers started to discuss the government’s interest in connecting Syrian archaeological heritage with the local populace. This interest was evident in many projects, such as co-operation with international institutions to improve Syrian museums, rehabilitation of historical monuments, and the creation of the Museum Development and Support Unit (MDSU) to investigate the best methods to connect local society with archaeological heritage and museums.[18]

According to Dr. Yara Moualla, ex-general coordinator of the MDSU, a Syrian team was formed to cooperate with a French one and to define Syrian needs within this framework. The team decided that the work should include administrative, legislative, economic, social and educational development, as well as fostering the relationship between Syria museum institutions and international authorities, to establish Syrian heritage as an important part of our universal heritage. The administrative work included dividing the missions and creating a team for each field:[19] 

- The legislative field included a team of lawyers and jurists to develop the law of antiquity[20]

- The economic field was directed to invest in cultural heritage and transform it from a burden on the state treasury into a national source of income

- Social work included the development of local societies and the identification of missing links between museums, cultural heritage and locals

- The education field included a cooperation with the ministry of higher education in order to develop master’s programmes about museums and cultural heritage[21]

As for the museums themselves, the work aimed first to change their display methods from focusing simply on the most important objects in their collection into choosing groups of objects that can create a narrative together and enable the museum to communicate better with visitors. Second, to make museums a focal point in local lives and to tie in with institutions or school. At the time of publication, some of these initiatives have been achieved, such as the renovation of the Department of Classical Antiquities in the National Museum of Damascus (opened in 2018), the reform of the Law of Antiquity (not clear yet if it has entered into force). However, due to the conflict in Syria many have also been stopped and it is unclear if these initiatives will be resumed and completed in the future or not.

Educational Curricula Development

In 2013 the National Centre for Curriculum Development was established. The new Centre, according to its mission, is dedicated to preparing a new national curriculum based on the vision of the Syrian state’s educational policy and goals.[22]The result has been a fresh and objective vision of ancient Syrian history as well as its modern art. In elementary school this is presented through illustrated art history textbooks covering both the contemporary and modern Syrian art scene as well as the most influential international artists. It also encourages Syrian students to learn about contemporary Syrian artists, both by learning about their oeuvre, and producing drawings inspired by their style. The books also focus on popular traditions in Syria and how the Syrian environment can be inspiring material for artistic works.[23]

Through Middle school, students continue with these art textbooks, with the addition of an introduction to the ancient history of Syria in the seventh grade. This book was first issued in 2017–2018 and presents the subject arranged chronologically and geographically. It illustrates the ancient relationship of Syria with other nearby civilisations and how this has influenced the modern Syrian identity. It covers a variety of topics such as the birth of agriculture, writing, Syria’s first cities and the role of the women in antiquity. It articulates each topic through case studies from ancient sites in Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt and objects excavated there such as seals, seal impressions, pottery, tablets, etc. In places the book also indicates the museum in which a specific artefact is held. The narrative presented in this textbook is of a vague indication of ancient Syrians as 'our ancestors' and the need to be proud of them.[24] In grade eight, the history textbook focuses on Syria during the Arab empires, with the Ottoman occupation and French mandate covered in grade nine.

The Educational Role of Museums in Syria - Features - Atassi Foundation

Education through the National Museum of Damascus

The author had the chance to conduct a phone interview with Fatat Jadid, ex-director of the educational department at the DGAM. According to Jadid, in 2007, when she became the director of the educational department, she established ‘The Children’s Museum Culture Project’ in collaboration with the Rainbow Association for Better Childhood, managed by Hadil Al-Asmar Al-Hassan. The project was also supported by Dr. Ma’amoun Abdul Karim, then the general director of the DGAM.

The project sought to connect Syrian children with the ancient history of the country by engaging with private and public schools from Damascus. It was also aimed at improving coordination with the Ministry of Education by arranging school visits according to museums' schedules and availability. The project aimed at children between 6–14 years old and was comprised of site location, content and volunteers provided by the DGAM, and financial support and materials from Rainbow.

The initiative included a guided tour of the National Museum of Damascus, followed by participation in different workshops organized by the museum. The one-hour tour showed the group of students – limited to no more than 40 per group – the most important aspects of each museum department. Students were then invited to participate, based on their interest, in one of the activities that the project offers: virtual excavation and object restoration, workshops on mosaic-making, wood inlay, wood block printing on canvas, pottery, cuneiform writing and bead decoration. In addition, students were asked to draw one of the museums’ objects that they had liked the most. Finally, a small booklet was prepared, titled Little Visitors, which presents an overview of the five departments of the National Museum of Damascus and includes a colouring book of select museum objects and puzzles.

According to Dr. Jadid, the project established a relationship between museums and Syrian children which, crucially, also extended to their families. As a result, a lot of children began to ask their families to take them to the museum on Saturday where they would meet other friends and re-visit the museum. In addition, the project created a form of coordination with the Ministry of Education, which had previously been missing. Accordingly, schools would programme their visits based on a schedule of available days that the museum offered the ministry in order to provide a chance for all schools to participate in the programme and have a guided tour without stressing the museum staff by overcrowding.

Due to its success, the initiative was opened up to all museums in Syria. However, it is not clear if it was applied and how it worked out (considering it was an external collaboration that provided funding). The project had its last ‘round’ in 2011 and it is not clear if it will start again.

The Educational Role of Museums in Syria - Features - Atassi Foundation

Massar Childrens Discovery Centre - Damascus


Looking back at the history and development of the educational role of museums in the West, we can note two important factors:

Firstly, it was government investment that furthered the development of such a role. Second, and as a result, the concept of learning through museums gained traction as an important part of the national curriculum. The one cannot exist without the other – a theory of museum-based education can only be developed after years of support and experience in this sector. That these two factors go hand in hand and are crucial for the continuation of museums as officially recognized educational protagonists in Syria prompts the question: how can the connection between education and the museum be communicated and promoted to the Syrian public; and how can we develop the role of scholars and/or museologists in developing this in Syria?

Unfortunately, government interest in the educational potential of museums in Syria is practically non-existent before the 21st century, as was the relationship between schools and museums. And, while there was a unified national curriculum, issues arose in its interpretation of the ancient past of the country, and the lack of coordination between the Ministry of Education and the DGAM for school visits.

Several initiatives have been undertaken to change the relationship between the Syrian public and museums in general, and between schools and museums in particular. The updating of the Syrian unified curricula can be considered one of the most inclusive and important initiatives, since it introduces the ancient history of the country to all Syrian students. However, this curriculum, as it stands, is facing challenges in creating a direct connection to national museums in Syria. Firstly, when it comes to ancient Syrian objects, the location of only a few of them has been indicated. Secondly, it was introduced during a time of conflict, when most museums in Syria were – or remain – closed. Therefore, students are unable to visit. Finally, looking at the distribution of museums among Syrian regions, it becomes clear that most are located within the governorates or big cities while smaller towns, villages or areas of remote countryside lack such institutions. This poses the question: how can museums take on a role in education if they do not exist? It could be argued that children can visit nearby archaeological or historical sites, since Syria itself could be considered an open-air museum, however, this theory is hindered by the relationship between the archaeological sites/materials and the Syrian population (for more details see Qassar, 2021) and by the lack of economic sources for people living in the countryside.[25]

It is also important to reiterate the lack of documentation, literature or academic research in the museum’s role in education. Despite the various initiatives that have been taking place in Syria, there is nothing published by those who are conducting these projects or directing such important change in building the relationship between Syrian heritage and locals. Most of the research relayed here have been the fruit of direct meetings and interviews. This situation limits the possibility of understanding the challenges of such initiatives or evaluating their effectiveness. It also hinders the possibility of creating a critical study of development of a learning-in-museums theory for the Syrian public. Nevertheless, the outcome of the recent outreach initiative in Damascus and others cities gives a strong indication that the Syrian youth is ready to create a good relationship with museums and to construct a new sense of ownership towards their ancient past and the national collections that fill Syrian museums.




[1] Macdonald, J. S., ‘Museums, National, Post national and Transcultural Identities’, Museums and Society, 1, 2005:1, pp.1-5

[2] Tišliar, Pavol, ‘The Development of Informal Learning and Museum Pedagogy in Museums’, European Journal of Contemporary Education, September 2017, pp.586-592

[3] Hooper-Greenhill, Elena. Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, Routledge, London, 1992;
Caillet, Elisabeth, ‘Schools and Museums: Reflections from France’, The Journal of Museum Education, Spring/ Summer, 1994, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp.14-18

[4] In many cases the collections held within museums were at odds with the official narratives propagated at the time by respective governments. Tisliar, Pavol, ‘The Development of Informal Learning’, European Journal of Contemporary Education, p.589

[5] Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean, Museums and Education: Purpose, Pedagogy, Performance (Museum Meanings),  Routledge, New York, 2007, p.5

[6] The American Association of Museums, ‘Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums’, 1992, p.5 (; Ellenbogen, Kristen M., The Museum as an Educational Institution: The Birth of Public Museums, Museums After the Civil War, A Shift in Education (

[7] Batho, G. R., School Museum and Primary History, Historical Association, London, 1999; Black, G., The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement, Routledge, London and New York, 2005; Diamond, J., Practical Evaluation Guide: Tools of Museum’s & Other Informal Education Settings, AltaMira Press, Nashville, 1999

[8] Hein, G., Learning in the Museum. Routledge, London, 1998

[9] Hooper-Greenhill, E. Museums and Education

[10] These include the National Museum of Damascus, the National Museum of Aleppo, The Museum of Palmyra, the Museum of Homs, the Museum of Dar’aa, the Museum of Tartus, the Museum of Latakia, the Museum of Raqqa, the Museum of Deir Ezzor, the Museum of Hasaka (not opened yet), the Museum of Quanitira, the museum of Deir Atia’ah (next to Damascus), the Musuem of Arwad Island.

[11] Qassar, Hiba ‘Politics, identity and the social role of museums in Syria’, Museum Management and Curatorship, 36:1, 2021, pp.14-29.

[12] The DGAM-published examples consulted here include: Abdul-Hak, S. Catalogue Illustre du Département des Antiquites Greco-Romaines au Musee de Damas, I, 1951; Abdul-Hak, S. Les Tresors du Musee National de Damas, Direction générale des antiquités et des Musées, Damascus, 1966; Al-Ush, A.-F., Joundi, A., & Zuhdi, B. Catalogue du Musee National de Damas: Publie a l’Occasion de son Cinquantenaire (1919–1969), Publications de la Direction Generale des Antiquites et des Musees, Damascus, 1969; Bonatz, D., Kühne, H., & Mahmoud, A. Rivers and Steppes: Cultural Heritage and Environment of the Syrian Jezireh: Catalogue to the Museum of Deir ez-Zor, Ministry of Culture, Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, Damascus, 1998; Zuhdi, B. The Museums, The Ministry of Culture, Damascus, 1998

[13] Abdul-Hak, S., ‘Syrian Museums and Education’, Les Annales Archéologiques Syrienneses, 1965, pp. 79-86 (in Arabic)

[14] Al-Bunni, A., Recent studies in Archaeology and Museums in the Arab World, AAAS1, 1976, pp.265-266; Bahnasi, A., Recent Studies in Archaeology and Museums in the Arab World, AAAS, 1977, pp.275-280; Zuhdi, B. Recent Studies in Archaeology and Museums in the Arab World, AAAS, 1973, pp.215-217

[15] Kanjou, Youssef, ‘The Role of the Local Community and Museums in the Renaissance of Syrian Cultural Heritage’, Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies, 6 :4, 2018, pp.375–391. doi:10.5325/jeasmedarcherstu.6.4.0375 

[16] Ministry of Education, Electronic Curricula, Syrian Arab Republic, Ministry of Education, 2012, Retrieved 5 March 2014, from

[17] Qassar, Hiba, ‘The Role and Public Perception of Museums in the Middle East’, PhD. Thesis, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Florence, 2016

[18] Qassar, H., ‘Politics, Identity, and the Social Role of Museums’, 2021

[19] Qassar, H., ‘Museums role and public perception in the Middle East, 2016

[20] Qassar, H., 2021

[21] Qassar, H., 2016.

[22] National Centre for Curriculum Development, The Mission, 2020, Retrieved 05-08-2022

[23] National Centre for Curriculum Development, The Books, 2020, Retrieved 05-08-2022,

[24] National Centre for Curriculum Development, Ancient Syria, 2020, Retrieved 05-08-2022

[25] There is a general lack of interest among the Syrian population and the archaeological patrimony spanning through the country. This is the result of outdated colonial practices and the lack of community archaeology projects, the policies of the DGAM from the 1970s to the beginning of the current century and the general perception of the Syrian people as to what constitutes their ‘heritage’ (for more details, see Qassar 2021).