It’s not just about Notre Dame!Article
For a long time, European cultural institutions only collected the world. Now the focus is exchange on equal footing.
In the debate about the Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace), it is often said that the new building means a new approach to the world. Other European museums are aspiring to this as well. But how can they develop one? What gives us the right to bestow the European understanding of museums and cultural heritage on other societies? Scientists who work with collections on societies outside of Europe are active in foreign countries by definition. But how should such partnerships be structured? During my research and projects in the Near East in the past 25 years, the issue of my own role has always been virulent. Should a joint project proceed from a western definition of history and cultural heritage? When developing a museum in Jerusalem or Yazd (Iran), do I apply my own concepts because I can’t even identify the wishes of visitors in the host societies? What am I doing in places like that anyway?
Entrance to the Citadel of Aleppo © Sultan Kitaz, 2014
Internationality is an everyday affair at Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, SPK). Expertise in museum collections, departments in the Staatsbibliothek (State Library), or research institutions inevitably evolves from actively researching the collections and their socio-historical contexts. A constant exchange of information has been developing for decades in international networks. We are aware that we are facing global structural inequality and that we have been skimming off the world’s resources long enough. But things are beginning to change: Non-Western art scenes are blossoming all over the world. Biennials in Istanbul, Sharjah, and Cairo are examples from the Islamic world. Iconic museums with imported art, like the ones on the Persian Gulf, are signs of a new self-confidence.
But many countries do not have these resources now and won’t have them in the medium term either. Huge donations without political aid have accumulated for the reconstruction of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral as a national symbol. This is not true for the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, not to mention other cultural heritage sites in Syria. So our specific heritage is also a legacy. We need to continue working more intensively to keep our resources accessible and make it possible for people from the societies of origin to participate in them through educational scholarships for multipliers in countries of origin, travel subsidies, and supporting local structures. Isolation would be wrong.
Our long partnerships have changed us, too.
We are often involved in projects that were born of necessity, like the tragic loss of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. But the everyday work of the SPK’s museums is the rule. At the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art) alone, there are projects running on more than ten UNESCO world heritage sites – a unique situation. Whether it’s research, museum design, data bases, restoration, digitalization, or capacity building, the projects are as diverse as the partners. Projects that we have developed together, like SAWA, the first training program for young professionals in museums in Arabic-speaking countries and Germany, have been especially rewarding. SAWA was developed in partnership with the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin (Berlin University of Applied Sciences), Goethe Institute and Sharjah Museums Authority. Local educational and structural projects, like those in Herat, Afghanistan, or in Yazd, Iran, have been as well.
These long partnerships have changed us, too. We work on an equal footing, we visit each other, and have formed close friendships. Dialogue promotes self-reflection. In every country, there are professionals and amateurs who are committed to the preservation and museumization of their cultural heritage for various reasons. But in pan-Arab, pan-Islamic, nationally, or sectarian – i.e., diverging – views of history, the points of view are not always the same. Negotiation processes require public spaces. But public spaces are often regulated in the Near East. For example, in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, there is a cooperative project between the university, the city administration and the Orient Institut Beirut. A 13th-century trading house was restored. Proposals were discussed in workshops and revised on site. No one asked us why we were there. The restoration later received an award in Lebanon and served as a model for further restorations.
In the current cultural cleansing crises, in which cultural memory is being wiped out, museums are receiving a new role. Particularly in times of crisis, it is extremely important to remain in dialogue with partners from societies of origin. Of course, at first it leaves a strange taste in your mouth to be worrying about cultural heritage when millions of people are fleeing. Humanitarian aid first! But our Syrian partners, like those in the Syrian Heritage Archive Project, are grateful that we are staying in touch and they have asked us not to abandon them.
Cultural heritage is enormously significant as a connecting band of collective identities, especially in politically tense times: It can be a bridge in nation building after the conflict. In order to socially strengthen the relevance of cultural heritage, in an extension of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are asking for personal memories and the individual definition of cultural heritage. What exactly does material and immaterial cultural heritage mean to the general population? A team of four specialists is entering into dialogue with people in Aleppo and recording their definitions of immaterial cultural heritage in the data base.
So, the answer to the initial questions posed in this article does not appear to be questioning partnerships with countries of origin. On the contrary, involvement is clearly in demand. Our project, “Multaqa: Museum as Meeting Point – Refugees as Guides in Berlin Museums” is an example of reacting to social change. In it, objects are explained by 23 refugee guides from the countries of origin – at first only to other refugees, later also to German- and English-speaking visitors. This is also a matter of participation, representation, and emotional identification. It is important to further open our society to expertise from other sources and to make it welcome here as a matter of course.
The author is the Director of the Museum für Islamische Kunst in the Pergamonmuseum.