Why Tunisia’s Bardo has become a museum of the macabre

Visitors to the Bardo National Museum in Tunis have dwindled since the March 18, 2015, ISIL terrorist attack that killed 22 people. But Tom Westcott finds that guides are now weaving details of the traumatic event into their tours.

A tourist looks at a bullet hole in a sculpture casing at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Visitor numbers to the country have slumped since the attack on March 18 last year. Fethi Belaid / AFP.
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One year after ISIL terrorists attacked the Bardo National Museum in Tunis killing 22 people and leaving more than 50 injured, the museum’s huge, airy foyer is deserted. Once one of Tunis’s principal tourist attractions, the museum now attracts just a handful of visitors each day, mainly local students and the few independent tourists still travelling to a country where two terrorist attacks targeted westerners in the past year.

“There were 600 visitors here on the day of the attack,” says tour guide Rida. “Today, there have been maybe 18.”

Large tourist groups on day excursions from Mediterranean cruise ships were particularly lucrative for tour guides, but buses packed with visitors are now a thing of the past, he says, pointing to a huddle of six westerners admiring Roman mosaics – the only group so far that week.

Since the attack on March 18 last year claimed by ISIL, the tourist experience at the Bardo museum has changed. Guides have adapted their talks to accommodate visitors’ macabre interest in the event, weaving details of the shooting into Tunisia’s rich history on which the museum is founded. Terrorism has become part of the new tourism.

“Look here, these were the first shots fired inside the museum,” says tour guide Mohamed, pausing on the staircase that sweeps up to the second floor, boasting what he claims is one of the world’s largest collections of intricate Roman mosaics. The alcove behind a second century statue of Apollo is scarred by the haphazard path of AK-47 bullets.

He leads visitors among Phoenician artefacts surrounded by ornate Ottoman decorations, his voice echoing through the empty rooms. “Here on the upper floor, was the residence of the Bey [the Ottoman Empire’s Tunisian chief] and his wives,” he says. “Look at the many decorations and the chandeliers from Italy. The Ottomans were fascinated by Italian culture and civilisation.”

Mohamed’s timbre changes as he steps into the innermost part of the palace, once reserved for the Bey’s harem. “The terrorists shot many people here, in the Bey’s favourite rooms, which he kept for his wives,” Mohamed explains. “It was always the most popular part of the museum and, on that day, it was packed full of people.”

There are traces of gunfire everywhere – in wooden frames, windows, tiled walls and the still-shattered glass exhibition cases.

“The attackers looked like they were on drugs, when we watched the camera footage afterwards,” Mohamed says. “They were walking strangely and shooting everywhere, shooting randomly, shooting like they didn’t know how to kill people.”

Each guide has his own style and approach. Rida is animated about the attack, pointing out every bullet hole, saying: “Ah, but you must see the exit holes. The bullet goes in small but it causes much bigger damage on the way out.”

And parts of his spiel are not for the faint-hearted. “Here is where the three Japanese tourists were shot, in one of the harem bedrooms,” he explains, pointing out five bullet holes in the farthest wall.

“Look carefully here, you can still see traces of the bloodstains.”

One of the bedrooms remains closed. In the thick dust coating its empty exhibition cases, visitors have written messages of sympathy and remembrance. Some are in Japanese. Another simply reads: “RIP to all.”

Mohamed says the museum authorities have decided, for the moment, not to repair the bullet holes in the walls and exhibition cases. “We have left the damage like this because the incident is part of the museum’s history now. Even Tunisians were very shocked by what happened and we need people to see the atrocity of the attack, not hide it.”

The situation for the museum, like the whole tourist industry upon which Tunisia has heavily relied to shore up its modest economy, is dire. Half-completed renovations and a planned new extension have been shelved – perhaps viewed as a pointless expense when there are so few visitors.

At the end of the tour, Mohamed walks visitors to the door, past new security systems installed after the attack, to where a mosaic plaque lists the names of those who died. Nearby, two elderly men hawk silver-plated jewellery to any visitor leaving the museum, grateful for the cheapest purchase.

“Even a year after the attack, the situation is the same. There are only very small numbers of visitors coming to the museum,” Mohamed says. “Even though Tunisia is quite secure, the big problem now is Libya, and foreigners are afraid to come here because of the war in our neighbouring country.”

He claims that, if Libya became more stable and secure, tourists would start to return. But sporadic incidents in Tunisia continue, with an ISIL attack near the Libyan border on March 7, which left 55 dead.

Although Tunisia is still praised internationally as the success story of the Arab Spring, for those whose livelihoods rely on tourism, the situation has never been worse.

Tom Westcott is a freelance journalist who reports from North Africa.