BERLIN: “You have these showcases, that are very beautiful,” Stefan Weber says, gesturing to a vitrine of pieces from 13th-century Konya, Turkey. “Before we thought, ‘They’re speaking to the visitor,’ but of course they don’t speak German or English or French. In fact it’s very hard to understand the language of the object.
“How to make these objects come out of the past into your present, is one of the great challenges we face. When I started, I thought, ‘Write better. Write more,’” Weber’s smile reignites. “Of course that doesn’t work. People aren’t interested in my writing.”
He blinks at the writer recording him, mugging bafflement. “Shocking!” he laughs. “How could they?”
Weber is the director of Pergamonmuseum, Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art. Striding among the exhibits, the word he uses more than any other is “testing.”
Pausing to gesture at a favorite object, he may describe plans to optimize its lighting or various efforts undertaken to bring you closer to the work, whether in sensuous or intellectual terms.
He briefs you on the struggle to ensure the pieces are protected from the vagaries of climate, then on studies being done to raise conservation standards so that the paint used for a display, for instance, doesn’t aspirate chemicals and damage the object.
It’s a bit surprising. Experimentation isn’t something you associate with an Islamic art museum.
Weber trained as an architectural historian specializing in the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces.
Before returning to Berlin, he lived and worked in Damascus and Beirut for well over a decade.
News agencies became aware of the museum director when, as a backlash was gathering against Germany’s open-door policy to asylum-seekers, Weber created Pergamon’s Multaqa program, recruiting Arab migrants to lead tours of museum exhibits.
“We’re still learning,” he muses. “You’re doing well if 10-15 percent [of visitors] read. The self-developers and explorers will stay but most will not finish the text.
“Still, when we ask the public what sort of service they want, they answer, ‘We want more context.’ How to make it so that people can sit and enjoy themselves and at the same time explore? This we’re testing now.
“To get a showcase working and to test it is very expensive and time-consuming. You never know what’s a failure until you make it. We’re in a living laboratory. Tomorrow’s visitors are probably similar to today’s visitors. Half of what we develop we can throw away. The other half we can redevelop because they need to work better.”
Pergamon is among a cluster of cultural spaces occupying Museum Island, on the Spree River, along with the Neues Museum, Altes Museum, Bode-Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie and, the newest, the James-Simon-Galerie. Each exhibits artifacts from various eras and areas from ancient Egypt to modern European art.
In the coming years, the Pergamon itself will move into a new state-of-the-art space on Museum Island. (“The climate in this museum is a catastrophe,” Weber confides quietly, “so we’re much looking forward to the new museum.”) The relocation partly explains the feverish testing program of Weber and his team.
During a visit earlier this year, The Daily Star found an institution navigating contentious issues confronting all northern museums of its scale. Weber is addressing a few more too, matters specific to a state-funded museum of Islamic art that’s as concerned with the cultural patrimony in the Muslim world as it is Germans of Muslim heritage.
RUMI AND NEW GERMANS
As centers of research, conservation and exhibition, museums have an ambivalent legacy.
Lebanon’s cultural laborers have long noted that state institutions like those of Museum Island are among the features that set northern countries like Germany apart from those in the south, like Lebanon - where for some years a private enterprise, APEAL, has been working to create a national gallery.
Weber says the Pergamon is involved in a dozen or so cultural heritage projects around the Muslim world. These range from a training program in museology, run in partnership with Sharjah, to the Aleppo Project. The latter is consolidating the world’s largest database on the city’s rich cultural inheritance, with an eye to helping restore what's been destroyed and badly damaged.
Presently Weber’s describing how the 13th-century poet, jurist, scholar and mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi became central to Pergamon’s Konya gallery. “We asked Berliners from Konya, ‘What do you think is important from Konya?’ They all said, ‘Rumi, of course.’ Meanwhile my academic friends from Konya say, ‘Again Rumi?’” he laughs. “‘Don’t we have something better?’
“But Rumi [aka Mawlana] is a big story and we need to have the big stories. So we have a nice filmmaker making a film on Rumi with us. One day it will go online.
“We must tell stories that are relevant for today, like that of Mawlana. He was born in Barakh in Afghanistan. Through crisis and war, he left and was invited to come to Konya, in Turkey. The Turks today say, ‘He is ours.’ The Iranians say, ‘He is ours.’ In Afghanistan they say ‘Ours!’ The most important person from Konya today was an immigrant,” he smiles. “When the city is open, you get outstanding people who are interesting to our history. Suddenly a piece from the past becomes very present.
“Our interior minister says, ‘Migration is the mother of all problems.’ I thank him for this phrase, though I change it a bit. I say, ‘Migration is the mother of all culture.’”
The museum’s outreach program is being developed with area schools, youth clubs and German mosque communities. With an Imam Teaching Institute in Osnabruck, the museum is developing a program that pairs the mosques’ theological education with Islamic cultural history.
Pergamon houses a wealth of art and architectural objects from the premodern Islamic world.
Mingling recreations with the museum’s restorations of authentic pieces, the architectural exhibits are most expansive.
The collection includes an ensemble of red marble columns, with plinths and a segment of roof, from Baalbeck’s Jupiter Temple, a monumental reconstruction of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and, from Jordan, the facade of the Umayyad Qasr Mshatta, dated 743.
“Mshatta is a cornerstone of Islamic art history and the greatest piece of Islamic art ever in a museum,” Weber says. “It shows how the late antiquity was transforming into something new.”
The objects exhibited in the museums of countries whose colonial empires once controlled vast swaths of the global south have provoked nationalists in once-colonized countries to demand restitution. Weber has mixed feelings about these demands.
“Many objects were made to travel,” he says, gesturing to the objects in a glass vitrine. “I have no problem that they traveled, even to Europe. European objects should also be allowed to travel and I like the idea that there are now museums in the Middle East that own and exhibit European objects.”
He nods to an original mihrab (mosque prayer niche) from 13th-century Konya.
“The mihrab was not meant to travel and is, of course, missing there. The stories of these objects are diverse. Quite often, entire mihrabs were replaced by modern ones, however this one was dismantled by the head of the institution of the Mevlevis some 120 years ago, and sold off in pieces.”
The Pergamon’s founding director had documented the mihrab and its mosque. When he learned its pieces were on the market, he collected what he could and reassembled it.
The museum’s gorgeous dome from Granada’s Alhambra has a not-dissimilar provenance.
A German businessman had acquired a palace in Granada. When the state expressed reservations about his plan to ship the dome overseas, the businessman donated the palace to Granada Municipality, which in return approved the removal of the dome, which was replaced by a well-made copy.
“I don’t feel the problem is so much that Germany has a colonial history but that we have an imbalanced system, so that Europe had institutions like this and the Middle East didn’t, which of course reflects power relations ... then and now.
“It’s important to talk about this,” he says. “Some objects which are of importance could be given back.” He only has a problem when an object is used to service a domestic political agenda within countries of origin.
While Turkish officials have demanded the return three pieces that originated on the republic’s soil, he says, their Uzbek counterparts expressed delight that Pergamon is showing architectural pieces from old Samarkand, despite their somewhat dodgy transmission.
“People say ‘Give it back.’ For me it’s not that we don’t want to talk anymore about provenance,” Weber says, “It’s much more important what we can do with these objects in our societies and how we can open our societies to make things more accessible for everyone.”
‘CIRCLE OF CONNECTIONS’
Critics of traditional exhibition practice have complained about how national museums have become warehouses for cultural production, disconnected from the public. Pergamon’s experiments with how best to package its collection for public consumption offer a riposte to this critique.
As Weber describes his schemes to make Pergamon an instrument in the cultural integration of new Germans, it’s possible to imagine a model for a new generation of museums, responding to an era of unremitting movement.
Presently, Weber’s describing his plans to make emigrant musicians from the Middle East central to the museum’s exhibits.
“A Syrian opera singer will perform tango with a bandoneon player,” he smiles. “I had no idea that bandoneons come from Berlin. All these Argentines playing Berlin music. There’s a nice circle of connections there.”