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construction of meanings in museums

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BembeckThe e x h i b i t i o n of a r c h i t e c t u r e
a n d t h e a r c h i t e c t u r e of an e x h i b i t i o n
The changing face of the Pergamon Museum
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Abstract
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One of the major archaeological museums, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, serves as an example to discuss
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present problems of museology. I argue that the development of museums has to be analysed from a combina-
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tion of perspectives, including an historical one, that of visitors and of museum staff. In a first section, the paper
outlines the history of the Pergamon Museum, including an institutional history and the larger socio-political
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framework. To highlight the range of possibilities of understanding, I give two readings of the museumfromthe
viewpoints of differently oriented visitors, one colonialist, the other postmodern. I then consider current debates
among curators and distinguish between two main exhibition strategies, one pragmatist, the other purist. Finally,
I discuss the larger framework in which museums exist, which shows their problematic status. Using critical theory's distinction between culture industry and affirmative (elite) culture, I show that the Pergamon and other
museums survive today only through an uneasy compromise between these two extreme poles of culture.
Keywords
museology; Pergamon museum; archaeology; exhibition structure; commodification; culture industry
Introduction
Much of my student life I spent in West Berlin, then a city surrounded by the German
Democratic Republic with its capital East Berlin. During that time, I sometimes crossed the
border to East Berlin at the FriedrichstraBe subway station. From there, it was only a short
walk along the train line to the famous Pergamon Museum. Because of my interest in the
ancient Near East, I visited the museum whenever I made the effort to go to East Berlin.
Every time I began to wander through the halls of this treasure house of ancient monuments,
I left quickly, being disappointed and bored by its exhibits. At the time, I did not reflect much
on why this was so - I had less extreme, but similar feelings about the Louvre's ancient Near
Eastern section and many other museums I had visited, and simply considered most of them
to be old-fashioned in how they exhibited objects of the past.
Later, I became interested in the consumption of material culture in museums and why
so many people actually did go to exhibits and the 'Five Star' cultural sites of the Guide Bleu,
Baedeker and other tourist guides. In that connection, I was led back to my own impressions
about the Pergamon Museum, and I began to reflect seriously on my reactions. In honest discussions with friends, I found that most of them had a response similar to mine with regards
to the Pergamon Museum.
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What are the reasons for the museum's apparent dullness? The curators' lack of innovative
ideas? Exterior, adverse financial and other conditions? Or visitors' false expectations - since
the impression of'dullness' results from a particular relationship between visitors and exhibited objects, but not from the objects themselves? The Pergamon Museum highlights problems of contemporary archaeological museums in a prototypical way. Its ambiguity is due to
evaluations of standard tourism appraisals (in one guide:'contains Berlin's most valuable artistic treasure';'the first museum in the world devoted to architecture';Vestner 1989, 218-220;
'duty for every Berlin tourist'; Caspar and Krahe 1995) that contrast to the impressions individual visitors may have.
In this paper, I show that no single perspective can do justice to complex and multifaceted cultural institutions such as the Pergamon Museum. I approach the equivocal nature
of the Pergamon Museum in three ways. First, I give a brief account of the museum's history and the changing political context in which it has survived. Second, I provide two potential 'readings' of the museum which are radically different. I construct myself as a double visitor in order to make clear what the museum's internal structural advantages and shortcomings are. An empirical study of the diversity of visitor experiences, as called for by Wright
(1989) and realised for other museums by Bourdieu and Darbel (1990) or Merriman (1989),
is beyond the scope of this paper. Third, I discuss how this museum may develop further in
unified Germany by referring to recent theoretical discussions among curators and in the
museological world; I place these readings and discussions in a wider context of cultural critique and aesthetics. Such a triple perspective reveals that historical factors condition the
structure of museums, but also that a museum's history is shaped by museum visitors and staff.
The historian's view: the Pergamon Museum and its fate
from Kaiserreich to reunification
Compared to major museums in other western European capitals, the Pergamon Museum is
a relatively recent institution. The Louvre and the British Museum in particular have much
longer traditions. The reasons for building such a museum in Berlin stem largely from the
competition with other European national powers, in this case on a symbolic level. Recently,
with the move of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin, the concentration of Kulturguter
in an ensemble of museums on the Spreeinsel, a tract of land between two arms of the river
Spree, again shows Germany's political ambitions expressed through Kulturpolitik (Gaillemin
and Gaehtgens 1997) and the bizarre concept of a Kulturhauptstadt (cultural capital).
Interestingly, the Pergamon Museum shows little if any internal development and
rearrangement of its contents since the time of its inception. This static character of the
museum is surprising on two accounts. First, museological theory and practice have changed
since the early 20th century, and second, the political and social conditions surrounding the
museum were subject to several radical changes in the course of the last 100 years. I will first
give a brief account of the history of the Pergamon Museum itself,1 and then discuss the
socio-political changes which it survived, largely untouched.
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A museum was planned at the end of the 19th century as a building which would house the
famous Pergamon altar discovered by the engineer and avocational archaeologist Carl
Humann. Germany had been recently unified under Prussian leadership and sought to obtain
political weight equal to the other two major colonial European powers, France and
England. O n e of the most visible public signs of power were the museums established in the
imperial capitals. With the Louvre and the British Museum, France and England had such
institutions. The German elite, and the Emperor himself, felt that the lack of a comparable
museum in Germany, like other 'deficiencies', needed to be addressed (Gaehtgens 1996, 70).
Humann found the first pieces of the Pergamon altar in the 1860s. Some years later, the
German monarchy interfered on the highest political level at the Sublime Porte, through
Chancellor Bismarck himself. Secret negotiations led to the issuance of an excavation permit
by the Ottoman government. The altar, consisting of a monumental rectangular socle, colonnades and a staircase, as well as a great number of relief fragments representing the fight
between the Giants and Olympian gods, was excavated in an almost clandestine fashion. To
receive the lion's share of the excavated remains, the importance of the find was minimised
by the German negotiators in their deal with the Ottomans (Schalles 1986, 9-10; Gaehtgens
1996, 68). 2 After its transport to Berlin, the altar was housed from 1899 to 1908 in a building too small to exhibit anything other than the essential parts (Heilmeyer 1997).The results
of the Bergama (Pergamon) Excavation spurred ongoing German work at Olympia in
Greece, but also at Miletus in Asia Minor and in Mesopotamia. Large buildings were excavated and whole facades shipped to Berlin.
Around the turn of the century, the decision was made to create a vast museum 'appropriate' for an imperial capital that would house such monuments as the Pergamon altar, the
city gate of Miletus and other architectural works from the Classical World and the Near East.
The building was planned by the architect Messel in 1907, and work was begun in 1910 but
only completed in 1930 (figure l ) . T h e construction of the huge, three-winged building
encountered many difficulties. The lack of public financial resources at the time of construction led to much criticism. By 1918, Germany's political system had changed from monarchy to republic, and the nation had lost all its colonies. Some deemed the scale of the museum 'bombastic' and completely inappropriate for the changed political situation. In local
Berlin publications, the so-called 'Berlin museums war' ensued (Schefner 1921).
This war in the press and intellectual circles was not only concerned with the huge neoclassicist building that became the Pergamon Museum on the Museumsinsel. It also included
an internal dispute between the general director of the Royal Berlin museums, Wilhelm von
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Bode, and the director of the collection of classical antiquities,Theodor Wiegand. Bode wanted the museum to be a copy of the British Museum, including only Near Eastern antiquities, Classical collections and German Medieval art (Gaehtgens 1992,106). In this way, a clear
link between the Classical golden age, its presumed roots and modern heirs would be made.
Wiegand, the excavator of Miletus, and later the Near Eastern archaeologist and architect
Walter Andrae, wanted the museum to focus on Classical and Near Eastern architecture
(Gaehtgens 1992,88-89; Heilmeyer 1997), a unique symbol of (past) German colonial power.
Bode (1997, 429; 436-439) accused Wiegand especially of archaeological 'megalomania' and
spoke of the 'false monumentality' and 'foolish gigantic halls' of the planned museum.
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Figure 1. Fasade of the southern (Near Eastern) wing of the Pergamon Museum (photo by Susan
Pollock).
A compromise wasfinallyfound.The southern wing was reserved completely for the ancient
Near East, the middle part for the Classical World, and the northern wing for German art
collections. In the middle and southern wing, the main focus were large pieces of architecture from various German excavations in the Mediterranean region and the Near East
(Massow 1936, 6).
The museum opened in 1930. Its doors were shut again only nine years later because of
the Second World War. The Nazis, who came to power in 1933, had little time either to plan
or to implement major modifications in the Pergamon Museum. When the museum was
closed in 1939, the few portable objects were stored in the basement and the sculptures of
the Pergamon altar protected with sand bags. In 1941, the sculptures were taken down and
stored in a bank vault, later in a bunker. The Ishtar gate and the processional street with their
glazed friezes were not removed, but partly walled in with bricks so that shrapnel would not
destroy them. After the capitulation of Nazi Germany, the Red Army confiscated the reliefs
from the Pergamon altar and stored them in Leningrad. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in 1958, the panels and a substantial part of other
collections were returned to East Berlin (Meyer 1958).
From 1951 on, the museum was able to reopen successively more and more rooms. In
the northern wing, the German Medieval collections were replaced by a collection of coins,
vases and parts of the Antikensammlung, largely a collection of Classical sculpture. In 1984, the
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main entrance in the middle wing was opened and the side entrance from the southern, Near
Eastern wing closed off. During the entire history of the socialist German Democratic
Republic, no further major rearrangements in the exhibitions were undertaken. Finally, after
the unification of East and West Germany in 1989, the West Berlin part of the
Antikensammlung was reassembled with the collection of the Pergamon Museum and moved
into the northern wing. Modifications since that time will be mentioned later in the paper.
To conclude this section on the museum's history, no major changes occurred since the
museum's p r e - W W I planning phase, and no rearrangements of any importance were undertaken since its opening in 1930 except for a change of the entrance from the northern and
southern wing to the central one, as originally conceived of by Messel (cf. Gaehtgens 1996,
69, fig. 15). In the aftermath of the Second World War, the museum needed substantial repairs
(see Bernbeck and Lamprichs 1992: 117, Abb. 6), but this situation led to an exhibit that was
largely identical to pre-war times (cf. Heilmeyer 1997). Even in the last years, no major
changes are apparent to the occasional visitor. A comment I heard from an American visitor
is that the museum itself is an item o f ' G e r m a n ethnohistory', an idea internationally reaffirmed
w h e n the Museumsinsel and with it the Pergamon Museum were declared a
U N E S C O 'World Heritage' site in 1999. O n e primary reason for the museum's apparent
dullness is its jutterly anachronistic character (but see below).
Such museal continuity stands in stark contrast to the radical changes of the political
regimes which the museum survived. In its brief history, the Pergamon Museum was an institution in several political systems, most of them with aggressively promoted, radically differing ideologies. If all museum exhibits are by necessity political (Macdonald 1998a, 1-2), and
the group of monumental museums in the middle of Berlin in particular (Gaillemin and
Gaehtgens 1997, 96), what rendered the Pergamon Museum so flexible that it could be read
as an exhibit which was in compliance with imperial, fascist or socialist worldviews? Ho w
did the curators stay aloof from political sea changes? Three main reasons can be named for
the museum's resilience.
T h e focus of the Pergamon Museum on architecture constitutes a first-order financial
obstacle to any potential rearrangements. Neither the Pergamon altar nor the other huge
monuments and facades could easily be displayed in this same building in a different fashion.
Only the non-architectural finds, such as statues, seals or tablets, which were and are shown
in separate rooms, could be rearranged without unjustifiable effort.
Second, the major exhibition items were until recently (see below) shown without much
written comment, plans or other contextual information. This lack of comment and infor102
mation about the cultural context of the exhibited architecture, the centrepieces of the 'collection,' allowed (and allows) for a multiplicity of different interpretations. Such curatorial
reserve worked in two directions. T h e museum did not provide easy points of attack for
potential ideological agitators. And it was malleable enough to be absorbed in different political systems with their claims on the past for legitimacy.
Third, despite radically changing political systems, an undercurrent of cultural continuity
within German society was crucial for the museum's existence, and the museum itself was a
primary reference point for the persistence of these ideas. What I mean is the literary construct of a 'spiritual kinship' (Landfester 1996, 207-213) between the ancient Greeks and
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modern Germans.The roots of this idea reach back to Winckelmann, Goethe and other writers of the 18th and 19th centuries A.D., a time when Germany was not yet a nation-state. It
served then to distinguish German-speaking geographical areas from neighbouring France,
conceived of as akin to ancient R o m e (Schiering 1969). Greece with its art was perceived as
the ideal Germany should follow (cf. Butler 1958; Marchand 1996).This curious, self-chosen heritage was at its beginnings only of interest to an intellectual elite. However, in the latter part of the 19th century in the Kaiserreich, more and more Gymnasien were founded.These
high schools, in which Greek language was a major subject, were the only ones to permit
access to all university studies and to all higher civil service professions; anybody with such
aspirations had to go through this curriculum. Accordingly, the percentage of the bourgeois
class with a good knowledge of ancient Greece increased (cf. Wehler 1988, 126-128;
Nipperdey 1993, 547-557). The civil servants were at the same time the class which supported the new national ideas most fervently. As Hobsbawm notes (1964, 166), the development of schools in general, and Gymnasien in the German case, is one of the most important
indicators of the progress of nationalism — since schools (and universities) are its most conscious champions. With this educational background, many more people than today were
able to interpret directly what they saw in the Pergamon Museum. Already by the 1930s,
however, a decline in knowledge of Classical cultures was mentioned by staff of the
Pergamon Museum (Massow 1936, 6) which continues up to this day.
Later, in the Third Reich, no unified new vision of the 'German' past emerged (Ernst
1992/93, 192-193).The Amt Rosenberg as well as Himmler's SS-Ahnenerbe supported a past
based on a 'Teutonic' prehistory, whereas others, including Hitler, were more oriented
towards a link to Greek heritage (Brands 1990;Koshar 2000,121).The Nazi architects Albert
Speer andWilhelm Kreis drew explicitly on Greek prototypes. For example, the Pergamon
altar was the inspiration for an unrealised, sinister project by Kreis for a 'Soldier's Hall'
(Schalles 1986, 89, fig. 59).
In the following period of East German Realsozialismus, with its socialist ideology,
Classical Antiquity was reinterpreted on an official level as a slave-holding society in accordance with works of Marx and Engels (Buhr and Kosing 1974, 258-259; Marx 1974).
However, this had barely any effect on the exhibitions. There was no rearrangement, no contextualisation by way of signs and textual material in the museum. Interestingly, the clearest
Communist interpretation of the Pergamon altar was produced by a German exile in
Sweden, Peter Weiss (1983, 7-25). His description of the altar's reliefs cannot be matched in
its density of expression, in its reading of the represented figures as a monument of class struggle. Not only is it a literary masterpiece, it also reverses the traditional interpretation of the
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Olympian Gods as 'good and powerful' and the Giants as 'bad and losers.'The Giants appear
here as the sufferers, the Gods as cruel victors. This shows that the Pergamon Museum had
the potential to become a central part of a master narrative of Communist ideology, a potential which was never realised. After an initial phase of repair and restoration in the wake of
the Second World War, the government of the German Democratic Republic considered the
museum an important tourist attraction, and nothing more.
In sum, the effect of a - largely literary — construct of a 'spiritual kinship' between ancient
Greece and Germany in 19th century intellectual life cannot be overestimated. This concept
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was attacked by Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner and later some Nazi followers in the
SS-Ahnenerbe and the Amt Rosenberg (Arnold and Hassmann 1995). However, the idea was
deeply enough embedded in the German bourgeoisie to permit the museum to survive those
potential adversaries. The definite demise of the idea of a Greek-German spiritual kinship
came only with the sweeping educational reforms in the late 1960s in West Germany. Today,
Classical Antiquity has lost its magic attraction even for most of the German elite.
Concurrently, while visitor numbers in the Pergamon Museum may be stable because of the
growth of tourism, this new type of visitor has a less knowledgeable and more alienated relationship to the objects exhibited (cf. Rosenberg and Galard 2000, 32).
The informed visitors' perspective: two readings of the
Pergamon Museum
I mentioned above that the Pergamon Museum lacks contextualisation.The visitors' view is
steered only to a limited extent by signs and symbols exterior to the exhibited items.
Formally, the museum is an example of interpretive generosity. It invites a multiplicity of
readings because of its lack of hints for a specific understanding of the exhibits. The results
of a 'reading' of the museum by a Turkish Gastarbeiter whose home is present-day Bergama
or by a former official in the Ministry of Culture of the G D R would probably differ radically. Attempts at understanding such a museum must always be based on sufficient preknowledge of some sort (Bourdieu and Darbel 1990). This is why I call the following two
readings, one 'colonialist', the other 'postmodern', informed: both work with concepts that
are to some extent explicit in the visitor's mind. The readings I present concern only the most
important sections of the museum, namely the Classical and the Ancient Near Eastern wings.
A READING IN ACCORDANCE WITH COLONIAL PRINCIPLES Colonialism is not just the wellknown historical phenomenon of political and economic domination by European nations
over most other countries in the world. Colonialism also includes a deeply ingrained intellectual tradition which did not disappear with the political independence of most colonies
after the Second World War.
During their discovery and subsequent conquest of vast regions of other continents,
Europeans met a large number of people of whom they had no prior knowledge.
Domination of the conquered populations was not only achieved through outright political
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repression, but also by ideological means. To assure symbolic dominance, a ruling class or
nation frequently used the classification of whole social groups, their material culture and history in a number of new categories that legitimised the established order (Trouillot 1995,
52). Classification and ordering of cultures became, among other things, an intellectual way
to dominate the colonised world and its past (Foucault 1966; Rabinow 1984, 7-10). 3
Museums were an important public means for such classifications. The underlying structure of museums from colonial times persists in most cases up to this day and manifests itself
on two levels. O n a general level, specific museums house specific cultures: the so-called
primitive cultures are exhibited in museums of natural history, the so-called high civilisations
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in more prestigious places, sometimes in combination with collections from Classical
Antiquity and European paintings from Medieval and later times (Wright 1989,125-126; Bal
1992). Within each museum, the spatial arrangement of different sections again suggests cultural nearness or distance between groups of items exhibited, often separating what Klemm
(1963[1843]) termed insidiously 'passive' (non-Indo-European) from 'active' (IndoEuropean) cultures.
The fundamentals of such colonial classifications and their racist underpinnings did not
vary much from one colonial power to the next. They were closely linked to the dominant
ideas of the day, i.e., universal history and social evolution (Duncan 1995,25).These concepts
promulgated an idea of history that was championed by Europeans: there was progress from
the 'primitive' to the most 'complex' societies, the Europeans themselves.
According to German Altertumsunssenschaftler (historians, archaeologists, art historians and
philologists), the ancient Greeks were the starting point of a long tradition of European intellectual development (Marchand 1996, 16-35). The genius of Greece was believed to have
been innate in a particular kind of people, namely Indo-Europeans. As mentioned, an especially close relationship had been constructed between ancient Greece and early modern
Germany. It was a widespread idea that individuals, even whole groups, had intellectual and
artistic qualities by virtue of their ancestry. Nobody would be able to free him- or herself
from this genetic baggage, an idea which resulted later in the worst excesses of racism.
An institution such as the Pergamon Museum in Berlin could only confirm and enhance
such a supremacist world view. The appropriation and exhibition of objects from the 'Greek
roots' in the colonial core was a way to assert symbolically German dominance over the
world. However, the incorporation of Near Eastern artefacts in this museum needs an explanation: why were they included, and not artefacts from the Far East, Mesoamerica or other
non-European countries? I suggest that art from the Near East was geographically and
chronologically close enough to Classical Greece to be considered a forerunner, albeit a
primitive one, of Greece, the zenith of artistic development (cf. Andrae 1934, 46). Also, the
Near Eastern cultures — as well as ancient Egypt, which was originally to be housed in the
Pergamon Museum (Andrae and Boehmer 1992, 134) — had been described and discussed
by Greek writers such as Herodotus or Plato (cf. Davis 1979), and would therefore be the
first to have a privileged place near to Greek and R o m a n masterpieces. Furthermore, scholars of Christian conviction also tended to value material culture from the ancient Near East
higher than, for example, Mesoamerican or Indian items because of the close links to the
Bible (Larsen 1994, 68).
The constructed affinity between Greek and 19th-century German culture, in conjunc-
105
tion with the link between the Classical world and the ancient Near East gave the Near East
an ambiguous status. The ancient Near East is separated from the later, medieval remains
which are located on the second floor. Seemingly, the ancient Orient was considered less 'oriental' than its medieval remains. The argument implicit in such reasoning is that culture
develops in a phylogenetic way. Therefore, in ancient times both Greek and Near Eastern
societies were nearer to a common root. Later, differentiation set in and produced the contemporary diversity of cultures. But Mesopotamia was also not completely part of European
cultural heritage proper, since it was recognised early on that its languages did not belong to
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Former exhibit of
architecture
from Archaic Greece
Figure 2. Groundfloor plan of the Pergamon Museum. (After Jakob-Rost et al., 1992, Insert).
the Indo-European linguistic group. Linguistic affinities were of utmost importance in an age
when language served the purpose of nation building (Hobsbawm 1992, 102) and when
philology was one of the major branches of academe.
As stated earlier, the Pergamon Museum did not undergo major modifications in its history. Once inside, the physical exhibits a viewer sees during a visit these days differ little from
what a visitor was presented with in the 1930s. I follow a path of an old printed guide
106
(Massow 1936)4 that led the visitor to a room containing the earliest remains from early
Classical Greece (6/5th century B.C.). 5 Nowadays, this room is closed, and a guided visit
mostly begins in a room with Hellenistic architectural elements, dating to the fourth to second centuries B.C. (figure 2). From here, one is directed to the Pergamon altar. Unless one
reads the description of this monument attentively, one would not perceive that only the
front part of the altar with a monumental staircase is exhibited as an architectural specimen
(figure 3). The remaining pieces of the relief from the north and south sides as well as the
back are fixed to the walls of the room. The frieze on the outside of the altar, which originally had to be grasped by circumambulation, turns here into a monumental wallpaper which
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Figure 3. The Pergamon altar as exhibited in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin (photo by Susan Pollock).
encloses the visitor. This way of exhibiting architectural decoration was certainly inspired by
the similarly inverted exhibit of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in the British
Museum. The next room again presents monumental architecture, this time from the R o m a n
Empire. The centrepiece is the southern gate to the Agora in Miletus and architectural elements of buildings from the time of Trajan and Hadrian from Pergamon and Baalbek (Kunze
1990, 80).
The walk through the Classical rooms is impressive, leading from one monumental facade
with intricate decoration to the next. A certain sense of continuity is provided by the consistent system of lighting. The sources of light are glass panels that form the roof, and this
milky light is reflected by the marble and limestone of the objects displayed and by the walls
painted in a light bluish white.
One experiences a drastic change when passing through the Miletus gate into the Near
Eastern section. The room one enters has the shape of a cross. Strangely, the focal point of
107
this section of the exhibit is behind the visitor: the Ishtar gate is set back to back with the
Miletus gate.6 The view opens into rooms in which most of the walls display colourful surfaces, dark blue glazed bricks being the dominant impression.
Placing oneself in the centre of the cross-shaped room, one has to the left and right
facades of the throne room from the Old Palace in Babylon, dating to the middle of the first
millennium B.C., with a frieze of lions near the bottom. Behind the visitor is the Ishtar gate,
covered with bulls and Babylonian 'snake dragons' (figure 4). Slightly to the right and ahead
stretches the processional street of Babylon, with rows of lions to the left and right (figure 5).
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Figure 4. The Ishtar gate from Babylon with coloured glazed brick decoration. Berlin, Pergamon
Museum (photo by Susan Pollock).
The street is rather narrow (its width in the museum is half that of the original (Meyer 1956,
118)).The walls are covered to a considerable height with blue, in part also yellow and green
glazed bricks, so that one has the impression of being further away from the source of light
than in the rooms with exhibits from Classical Antiquity. Instead of clear, white stone and
white painted walls, which reflect the light, one is surrounded here by the darkness of the
coloured glazed bricks. The spatial feeling is that of an entrance into a narrow gorge from a
sun-lit, open space.
The curators of the Near Eastern wing must have had a preconception that colourful, dark
space, almost a sense of kitsch, was typical for the ancient Near East. This is indicated by
Gerhard Meyer s post-Second World War decision to paint the walls of some of the Near
Eastern rooms in dark red-brown, or to paint friezes with motifs taken from Near Eastern
iconography high above the displayed objects. Already before the war, large oil paintings in
108
rooms with small find exhibits depicted Near Eastern excavation scenes (cf. Marzahn 1992c,
168, photograph p. 168-169). Indeed, as Andrae, the spiritus rector of the exhibition structure of
the Near Eastern wing, remarks in his journal from Babylon: 'By my second year in Babylon
a more fundamental and less philosophical light dawned on me: colour....and form.... I felt
almost as though this revelation had been bestowed upon me as a complete substitute for religion' (Andrae and Boehmer 1992, 120). Andrae s artistic leanings certainly were decisive for
what was chosen as worthy for the galleries of the Near Eastern wing of the museum.
For example, the museum chose to acquire and exhibit a late phase of the Ishtar gate with
the colour glazed bricks, rather than the much better preserved earliest one with uncoloured
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Figure 5. View of the procession street towards the Ishtar Gate. Berlin, Pergamon Museum (photo by
Susan Pollock).
brick relief which depicts the same kinds of animals (cf. Koldewey 1990,48-63, esp. 49,fig.24).
Also noteworthy is the selection of other architecture such as facades decorated with coloured
terracotta cones from the 4th-millennium site of Uruk. A plaster cast of a Neo-Assyrian relief
with Assurnasirpal II on a hunt, the original of which had been lost in the Second World War,
was exhibited for some time in the post-war period. The piece is coloured in the way curators
imagined these reliefs looked in ancient times (Meyer 1956,174 and Abb. 64).
This strategy of exhibiting a colourful ancient Orient produces a false contrast with the
Classical Department of the museum in two ways. First, most ancient Near Eastern buildings
had monotone buff mudbrick facades. The museum's selection is not representative at all.
Second, the aesthetic rigor of the white abstractness of Greek and Roman art is artificial since
a considerable number of the Classical sculptures and reliefs were painted in ancient times.
On the reliefs of the Pergamon altar itself, faint traces of paint survived (Massow 1936, 54).
It can be argued that the exhibited imagery follows a similar strategy of creating contrasts.
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Figure 6. Athena and the giant Alkyoneus. Relief from the inner left side of the stairs of the Pergamon
altar (photo by Susan Pollock).
110
On the Pergamon frieze, the Gods, such as Athena and Zeus, are depicted as men and
women, fighting against the similarly represented giants (figure 6). This reduces their divine
character and adds to their human aspects (Schalles 1986, 31-33).The Near Eastern processional street, in contrast, depicts a subhuman category of animals and fantastic beings.
The Classical rooms are linked to the neo-classical museum facade, whereas the contrast
between the museum's exterior and the Ishtar gate could not be greater. The museum building itself was and is again part of Germany's national identity and pride, and it is especially
those parts in its inside which correspond formally to the outside that are implicitly linked
to this feeling (cf. figure l).This is underscored by the traditional use of the Pergamon altar
as an impressive setting for the posing of VIPs on occasions such as international conferences.
Ironically, even the members of the 1994 Rencontre Internationale Assyriohgique posed for the
camera on the stairs of the Pergamon altar instead of choosing the Ishtar gate; the recent centennial of the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft was as well held in front of the altar, not the Ishtar
gate.
A final structural difference that the attentive visitor observes in the Near Eastern section
is that, unlike in the Classical section, the rooms follow no clear chronological sequence.
There is no particular chronological logic to the path that guides the visitor through them
(Meyer 1956,16;Jakob-Rost et al. 1990, 40).This lack of sequential ordering is a symbol for
the lack of a linear history in the ancient Orient and contrasts with the sequence of architectural 'events' one experiences in the Classical section. In a way, the Near East is con-
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CLASSICAL WING
wide, light open space
aesthetic rigor: white marble
gods have human character
stylistic similarity to museum building
linear historical development
NEAR EASTERN WING
narrowed, dark space
kitsch: colourful relief
subhuman (animals)
contrast to museum building
lack of historical order
Table 1: Contrasts between the Classical and Near Eastern sections in the Pergamon Museum
structed as part of the 'people without history' (Wolf 1982), or at least without a teleological history. In a reading that centres on colonial aspects, the threshold which leads from the
Classical to the Near Eastern rooms in the Pergamon Museum is the most important element in the exhibition. In its abruptness, it clearly demarcates the familiar, lightened and
enlightened world in opposition to a dark, oriental, foreign, almost primitive world (table 1).
Curators might be tempted to explain these structural features away by Sachzwange, that
is, pressures related to outside constraints such as financing, available space in the centre of
Berlin, or the chance finds of research in both the Classical and Oriental worlds. However,
one should also consider that with the same amount of money, within the same space, even
with the samefinds,it would have been possible to organise completely different exhibitions.
In comparison with other well established institutions that owe a large part of their possessions to colonial times, the Pergamon Museum stands out for its unchanging nature.
Indeed, while the collections of largely mobile objects in the British Museum, the Louvre or
the Metropolitan Museum in New York allow for rearrangements of long-term exhibits, such
a reconceptualisation according to an updated understanding of'world history' is impossible
in the Pergamon Museum even with the best of curatorial intentions. As indicated above, a
spatial rearrangement of the exhibited monuments and artefacts would amount to a destruction of the museum as a building since it consists almost completely of architectural monuments anchored to the walls. The museum is a classification in stone: for those visitors with
colonial preconceptions - and it would be wrong to assume that such attitudes have disappeared in times of a cultural neo-colonialism - it reaffirms a stark contrast between the genius
of the Classical world and its more 'primitive' artistic and intellectual roots.
A POSTMODERN READING Colonialism in its traditional form ended for the most part in the
middle of the 20th century. But the economic and cultural dependency of the former
colonies continues in many regions up to the present. Dependency takes the form of an
intellectual colonialism in the guise of modernism. Modernists often perceive the contemporary world as a place where technological progress is the basic and universal measure of
success. The belief in a better and brighter future, and in a history that has a direction is alive
and well. Universal values are apparent, for instance, in movements claiming equal rights and
justice for all.
Only since the late 1960s has a critique of this kind of intellectual colonialism and its
attempts to repress non-western values developed. This critique is part of a larger intellectu0A
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al debate about modernism and its principles. French intellectuals had an important role in
the development of the notion of postmodernism (cf. Best and Kellner 1991). I cannot go
into great detail about its underlying ideas (cf. Harvey 1989; Anderson 1998), but will mention those fundamental tenets that are important for a postmodern reading of the Pergamon
Museum.
First, the belief in universal values, especially such deeply ingrained ones as the notion of
progress, has come under severe questioning (Apel 1995). Postmodernists propose instead the
abandonment of any dominant discourse, and proclaim that the world is understandable in
multiple ways, depending on one's cultural background and individual preferences (Lyotard
1984). Second, the world is understood as a text. This applies to writings as well as to material culture or landscapes (Daniels and Cosgrove 1988; Posner 1991; Pearce 1994, 27-28).
Postmodern readings of such diverse texts are different from traditional readings. In a traditional system, the reader tries to understand the author's intentions. Postmodern readings break
this scheme. 'Texts', such as buildings or other aesthetic phenomena that we experience in
museums, for example, can be read freely by individuals without regard to the creators' original intention (Derrida 1983,315-317).This is in line with the abandonment of dominant discourses. Texts invite multiple interpretations by readers and are to be seen in connection with
other texts, but not with authors' goals and motives in mind (Barthes 1977). Since postmodern texts are meant to be obstructive to any dominant discourse, they do not even favour a
(potentially hegemonic) anti-colonialist position. Rather, they work toward deconstruction of
all collective identities. Traditional forms of text — narratives — are dissolved into isolated fragments that can then be juxtaposed in a pastiche. This leads to a 'collapse of coherent signification'(Jameson 1991,72).
112
Furthermore, there is no such thing as truth in the world (Rorty 1989, 5-6).
Postmodernists claim that we live in a world of appearances instead of essences, and that consequently, there is no need for any search for essence. This is most apparent in postmodern
architecture, where one sees the abandonment of modern principles of clarity and exposure
of functional parts of buildings, taken to be their 'essence' and made visible by modernists.
Postmodern architecture makes instead extensive use of facades which obstruct the structural
features of buildings (Harvey 1989, 66-98; Schmidt 1994, 177-187).
These principles also apply to some museum exhibits (Ernst 1988). Several special exhibitions have taken a decidedly postmodern approach, mostly conceived by artists such as Fred
Wilson's 'Mining the Museum' show of Maryland Historical Society collections (Corrin
1994) or Eduardo Paolozzi's 'lost magic kingdoms' (1985) which showed ethnographic objects
side by side with modern art. Seldom, as in the Ashmolean's archaeological show
'The ?Exhibition?' (Beard and Henderson 1994), do curators take the lead in developing such
exhibits (cf. Shelton 1992, 16).
In comparison to museums with similarly famous collections, the Pergamon Museum has
an unintended postmodern touch. This is due to the particular character of the 'collections'
themselves and to the specific history of the museum. Small objects of daily life which were
found in connection with the excavation of the monumental architecture on exhibit were
either thrown away in the early excavations or have been largely banished to side-rooms, if
not the vaults in the basement. Some of the early directors of the departments, such as Andrae
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and Wiegand, developed the then unique idea of a purely architectural museum. This principle is upheld even today (Kunze 1992,15). The lack of portable objects in most halls leads to
a sense of unconnectedness among the architectural items.The difference in scale between the
huge facades and the viewers themselves also contributes to an impression of isolation and
fragmentation, the very essence of a pastiche. I refer to this effect of isolation here as decontextualisation.
There is another order of decontextualisation. Small objects, such as pots, seals and statues,
had a cultural environment in the ancient past. Their general context was inside a building,
thus corresponding in a very general way to the museum's context, a building's interior. Not
so for architectural facades. Natural environment had a much greater impact on people's experience of them. Standing in front of a monument in its original location, one would sense the
nature of the place: temperature, view of mountains or plains, other buildings, smells of the
vegetation, noises of animals or the wind. All of this is radically transformed in the Pergamon
Museum. In the hall with the Pergamon altar, the smoodi and even floor, the pale white light
coming through the glass roof, the echo of footsteps and people speaking in hushed voices,
the uninviting emptiness all give it more the character of the vestibule of a courthouse dian
of its original location on a slope overlooking the wide plain of Pergamon. Similarly, the narrow, dark and cool halls with clean floors in the Near Eastern section of the museum do not
convey any sense of the burning heat and dust of Babylon.
The Pergamon altar, the Miletus gate and the Ishtar gate are architectural facades. The museum setting, an interior space with windows in the roof, takes all structural engineering elements
out of these monuments and reduces them to mere surfaces. Again, this is in accordance with
the postmodern principle that the appearance has priority over the technical and the practical.
As Babich puts it (1994, 95),'Substance is a matter not of structure but of seeming'.
Most architectural facades are furthermore in conformity with the postmodern denial of
the 'cult of "originality"' (Kearney 1988, 278): the Ishtar gate and Procession street, for example, are assembled from a mix of original bricks from Babylon and others produced in Berlin.
These monuments are mere conjectures of what the gate and street may have looked like
(Marzahn 1992a, 14-15 with Abb. 6; 1992b, 116). Nevertheless, this simulation of Near Eastern
monuments has become much more famous than the older, better preserved gates at the site
of Babylon itself.7 The glazed brick facades take on a 'convincing effect of genuineness' (Meyer
1956, 129; my translation). As Umberto Eco formulates, 'once the fetishistic desire for the
original is forgotten, these copies are perfect' (1986, 39).
In several places, architectural models of reconstructed buildings, such as the Pergamon
altar, the Processional street of Babylon, but also the 'Tower of Babylon'— known only through
foundations and textual sources - are exhibited (figure 7).These models are just as sterile and
decontextualised as their prototypes. The aim of exhibiting them remains unclear; it is probably to help the visitor imagine the ancient monuments in their full extent. Interestingly, the
new small model of the Pergamon altar remains as bleak and white as its prototype (Hoepfher
1997), while the models of the Procession street and Ishtar gate with the colour glazed brick
facades reproduce their fake 'original' (Marzahn 1992b, 112-113,fig.56).There is nothing but
architecture in them. In a postmodern sense, they are merely 'simulacra,' copies of a copy
which itself has no original, no reality (Baudrillard 1983). The intertextual character between
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Figure 7. Architectural model of the ziqqurat (temple tower) of Babylon. Berlin, Pergamon Museum
(photo by Susan Pollock).
114
the (reconstructed-simulated) Ishtar gate and its 1: 100 model is underlined by the fact that
the model was restored after having been largely destroyed in the Second World War. The
small-scale representation of the gate, which is itself a fake, reaffirms the postmodern dominance of the signifier over the signified (Eco 1986, 39-48; MacCannell 1999, 123-134). This
kind of exhibition was not only avant-gardist in the thirties as a unique museum of architecture — it remains up-to-date because of a lack of any educational, explanatory focus.
To conclude, the two widely divergent readings of the Pergamon Museum suggest that it
is of interest to those visitors who do not expect to learn, to be educated, but who come
already with the skills of some kind of (politically and culturally steered) reading. However,
the result of such visits is probably more a reconfirmation of the ideas already present in the
visitors' mind than a critical questioning of classificatory preconceptions (see also Roberts
1997,171, note 50). On the other hand, unprepared tourists anticipate in vain to learn about
ancient Greece, Rome, or the Near East. Disappointment originates from unfulfilled expectations about the educational efforts by the museum's curators.
Curatorial perspectives: purism or pragmatism?
Should or must the Pergamon Museum respond to tourists' potential disappointment, and
how? What is the potential future for this museum? I discuss this issue first in terms of recent
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museological debates, and then place these reflections in relation to the Pergamon Museum.
Ever since the French Revolution and the establishment of the Louvre as a public museum, European museums typically have had a display and a storage or reserve space. Up to the
mid-1980s, curators were (and some are) often more interested in research and the storage
space with its large numbers of scientifically valuable items than in the display areas and their
visitors (Roberts 1997, l).This focus on the archival and research tasks of museums changed
significantly with a movement called the 'New Museology', the principles of which were
announced in Quebec in 1984 (Mayrand 1985). This proclamation stressed rights of participation by local communities in activities of museums and de-emphasised the role of collection and curation of objects. In the early days of the New Museology, the sole focus seemed
to be the 'democratisation' of museums ('local museums, for all, by all'). Since the late 1980s,
writings in the vein of a New Museology have been growing rapidly.8 In these works, there
is an increasing interest in the variability of museum visitors, how they understand the messages communicated in museums and what visitors' expectations are (Davies andVergo 1989,
21;Wright 1989, 119-120).These concerns amount to a radical departure from traditional
understandings of the mission of museums with their focus on a 'scientific' classification of
objects, preservation and the exhibition of'masterworks'. No longer are visitors treated as
'faceless ciphers' (Hooper-Greenhill 1988,213).
The heightened interest in spectators puts all museums, whether small and local or metropolitan, in a new configuration of relations. Museums are now at the centre of a triangle
of curators' and visitors' concerns, and their historical circumstances. Most museums undergo at the same time a reassessment of the role of curators: museum educators have become
the professional mediators between visitors and curators. Concomitantly a whole separate
field of 'visitor studies' with its own journal (ILVS Review) emerged in the 1980s in the
U.S. (cf. Harris 1990; Hem 1998).
Despite these developments, today's museologists are by no means united in their ideas
about the future of their institutions. In the flood of recent literature, a controversy about a
basic theoretical issue is perceptible, even though it is rarely addressed openly. The point of
contention is the imagined relationship between visitors and the museums. How are an
increasingly large number of visitors to be served, if they are at the same time more and more
diverse? There are two very different approaches to this conundrum. One is constituted by
what I call a pragmatic group of museum professionals. For them, the museum has not only
the duty to educate, but also a responsibility to entertain a public which seeks distraction
from the high level of stress to which people in late capitalist societies are exposed. A rather
different point of view is advanced by what I term here a 'purist' group among the new
museologists who espouse reflexive points of view. For them, museum exhibitions should
incite visitors to become critical; instead of distracting, exhibits should lead to questioning
(contributions in Riisen et al. 1988).
In the following section, I first discuss the concepts underlying 'pragmatist' versus 'purist'
tendencies in museological discussions, and then compare the economic implications of these
two perspectives. For the purpose of clarity, I overemphasise conceptual differences; it should
be noted that there is continuity between the two poles. My discussion draws largely on
Anglo-American literature, which may in part reflect particular political and social configu0A
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rations in these two countries. Nevertheless, there are important insights to be gained for
German museums such as the Pergamon.
For pragmatists, the primary goal in planning exhibits is to reach a high diversity of visitors as well as a maximal number of them (Hooper-Greenhill 1988). The museum is conceptualised as a place which has to serve consuming visitors, not as a repository for precious
objects; in the sarcastic words of a curator from the Field Museum in Chicago, John Terrell
(1991,149):'What they [the visitors] want, when they want it, and how they want it'. Artists,
who potentially are affected by these changes in museum politics, were among the earliest to
comment in their ways on such tendencies. Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth mounted a
parodistic 'exhibition for dogs' in Berlin in 1976, where paintings of sausages were fixed to
the walls not far above the floor (Glasmeier 1992, 9).
Research reveals that a large group of visitors desires a sense of authenticity in a world that
is increasingly inauthentic (Gable and Handler 1996, 568). In the case of archaeological and
historical museums, the experience of the past as a 'lifeworld' is of primary interest to contemporary visitors because it promotes a group identity (Weber 1990). For archaeological
museums, this means that an exhibit should enable the visitor to experience the past in the
same way as a tourist who tries to learn something about the foreign culture she or he is visiting (MacCannell 1999, 91-107). Such authenticity does not reside in objects but in the visitor's experienced relationship to a set of objects. Authenticity is difficult to transmit through
a world of isolated - and in the archaeological case often broken - objects. Contextualisation
of remains is therefore one of the most important avenues promoted by pragmatists for the
creation of feelings of authenticity. According to this argumentation, the unprepared visitor
is able to appreciate an object in its past totality only if it is put into a dense network of complementary information, consisting of labels, photographs, other objects from a similar time
period, dioramas, sounds, films and recorded information (Sorensen 1989, 64-67; George et
al. 1990; MacCannell 1999, 78-79). The great success of open air museums and village-like
exhibits such as Jorvik (York), Colonial Williamsburg or others, where past technologies are
demonstrated, or where noises and even smells are included in the exhibition, where 'authentic' spaces are peopled by employees in traditional dress, prove the attractiveness of such an
approach to a wider public (Silver 1988, 188-191).
116
If the pragmatic curators goal is to reconstruct such a past, to 'understand how the object
presented itself to its original audience' (Vergo in Davies andVergo 1989,21), then the implicit precondition to this approach is the idea that there was an 'original context' for every object
(cf. Pearce 1991), and that the task of a museum is to render that context understandable not the object itself, which is said to be devoid of inherent meaning (Roberts 1997, 75). The
idea of'original contexts' is not new: it occupies a central place in Andre Malraux's 'musee
imaginaire' (1967) in which he deplored the necessarily artificial museum setting.
Proponents of the pragmatist strand of museology are the most ardent propagators of the
use of new media in museums. Audiovisual supporting material, but especially the entertaining aspects of technologies, such as computer games, are welcomed as important means to
attract a whole new clientele that is used to similar kinds of media in their daily life.
Accordingly, for pragmatists, the combination of entertainment and education in museums is
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essential (Roberts 1997, 40-45). It is only how to mix these two elements in a specific project that is worthy of debate (Silver 1988; Greenhalgh 1989).
A second strand of recent museology is called here 'purist'. Its proponents opt for a more
reflexive perspective on museums and their visitors. Where pragmatists try to convey a message that accords well with a maximal number of visitors, purists stick to the idea that museums' educational goals should be a questioning of the world. This critical attitude is apparent
already in the understanding of the institution 'museum' itself.
Purists see a deception in any attempt at rendering the museum itself'invisible.' Putting
visitors in a 'time machine', as the museum at Jorvik does, by driving them through darkened
rooms can only produce a distorted past reality by hiding a present one in two ways: the museum remains in existence as a structure where the objects are exhibited, and visitors never leave
completely their own lifeworld to enter an earlier one in which they forget their own hopes
and sorrows — even if they believe they have sensed what it meant to live in the world of a
past 'other' (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 86-90). Especially in museums where such strategies of
invisibility are used, visitors are induced to think that they feel as though they are in a past
world — but they see only a more or less intricate, beautified facade (cf. West 1988, 53).They
may smell, hear and see in such a museum, but they do not sense the judicial system, for example, the insecurity outside one's own sphere of life, the life-long dependence of the slave on
his or her master. For some pragmatists, this argument is irrelevant: 'if the experience is properly simulated .... does it matter that the props are "faked"?' (Roberts 1997, 99).
According to purist views, the exhibition of objects in museums not only irrevocably
destroys original contexts, but creates a new context for an object. The value of museums has
to be sought in their potential to de-contextualise objects and then to re-contextualise them
freely. Exhibition making is potentially an art in itself, a 'visual chamber concert' (Wittlin
1970,209) that allows many ways of reception. Each object has not only a (lost) original context, but also a whole history of its own, and this history should be an important part of any
exhibition (Clifford 1985, 245). In the purist's perspective, an object can take on lots of different meanings in its 'life,' always in relation to the social background of potential viewers
(Pearce 1986; Holtorf 1995). Since the history of an object is independent and often outlasts
that of human beings, the object is imbued with a certain autonomy, most clearly expressed
in Benjamin's (1968, 221) notion of the 'aura'. Objects are not a means to convey something
else, but have a value in and of themselves. It is not so much the authentic past of items that
is of interest to purists as it is the reception in a present.
Any attempt at contextualisation and reconstruction of past authenticity of objects is,
according to this approach, misleading for several reasons. First, the object is transposed effectively into a different context, a (mostly western) public institution with aesthetic, educational
and other functions alien to its own past (Durrans 1988, 158-162).The item was not meant
to be exhibited but made for other purposes.Vogel (1991,191-204) argues that we may appreciate in our ways, but not understand such objects unless they are from our own present culture. Second, no exhibition in a museum can purport to represent a past reality: the spatial,
temporal and financial limits of the institution force it into a synecdochical argumentation,
where a part stands for an unknown, or at least an un-representable, past whole (Fehr 1988,
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110). Briefly, there is no way to avoid selectivity in choosing what to exhibit and why
(Jordanova 1989, 31). Third, museum objects inevitably lose a lot of their dynamic character
when they are largely restricted to a 'life' in exhibit or storage spaces (Appadurai and
Breckenridge 1992, 37; Shelton 1992, 13).
This general concept of objects has an important consequence for exhibitions. Purists
tend to minimise contextualisation because it evokes a deceptive 'realism.' Contextualised
exhibits are criticised as 'coercive' (Jordanova 1989, 33), 'hegemonic' (Karp 1992, 26) and
'stereotyping' (Oberholtzer 2000,141-142). Less or non-coercive exhibits, on the other hand,
give an ever-changing audience the possibility to relate in their own ways to objects. As a
result, exhibits in the spirit of a purist museology may be characterised as relatively uncommented arrangements of objects which do not immediately lend themselves to interpretation. Instead, visitors are supposed to reflect about the arrangement itself as much as about
the exhibited objects. A good example is Daniel Spoerri's arrangement in the Kolner
Stadtmuseum, 'Musee Sentimental'; here, objects are selected in an unusual fashion, i.e.
according to their 'anecdotal value', and grouped under keywords which describe the city of
Cologne (cf. Fehr 1988, esp. 122, footnote 1; Martin 1995, 59-62).
118
In conclusion, the changing landscape of museology is not only divided into traditionalists with their focus on research and museum storage and more progressive museologists who
are concerned with visitor interests. In the latter group, pragmatists want the museum to
'ignite memories, activate emotions, and spark interchange'; the institution has the role of
producing narratives through objects, rather than centring a discourse around objects
(Roberts 1997, 137; 147). Purists insist on the autonomous character of the object, on the
independence of its history from human beings (Kopytoffl986) and the artificiality of object
classifications and the museum context. Table 2 gives an overview of the most important differences between the pragmatist and purist perspectives.
Conceptual differences in recent museology have important repercussions on the economic well-being of these institutions. It is not astonishing that most museum practitioners
tend to adhere to 'pragmatist' points of view. Research about the behaviour of visitors, but
especially their expectations and experiences, has permitted to address directly the problem of
visitor satisfaction; this, in turn, has led to increased museum income which is needed in a time
of decreasing public funding (Monroe 1995; see also Weil 1995, 183-206). However, Walsh
(1992, 128) observes that the inclusion of marketing strategies turns objects into commodities. Visitor preferences can be equated with consumer preferences, the knowledge of which
is so central to an increase in sales/visits (Hudson 1998, 44). When Roberts (1997, 78) posits
that museums should 'ensure that history, anthropology, and even science are presented in a
manner that reflects people's ideas about what constitutes history, anthropology, science,' she is
advocating an opportunistic exhibition strategy. Exhibits that explicitly work against this trend,
such as the originally planned 'Enola Gay' exhibit about the Hiroshima bomb and 'The West
as America' exhibit, both at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington (Bunch 1995;Truettner
1997), seem to have no chance in the present political climate (at least in the United States);
in their aftermath, self-censorship among curators has set in (Bunch 1995, 34).'
Exhibits that conform to a purist perspective often have to deal with a seldom openly
admitted economic problem. They consistently attract a smaller number of visitors than the
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PRAGMATISTVIEW
authentic past
static
restricts interpretation
contextualising
technology used to contextualise
consumer-oriented
large audiences
populist
PURIST VIEW
object history and the present
dynamic
multiple interpretations
de-contextualising
technology sparingly used
object-oriented
small audiences
elitist
Table 2: Principal differences between pragmatic and purist museologies
popular multimedia displays with a lot of illustrative and contextual information (cf.
Hoffinann 1988, 142; Leon 1989, 531-535). Decontextualised exhibits which focus not so
much on what the exhibited items are about, but rather what values they carry in themselves
(Weil 1995, 49), may be interpreted as a form of elitism, even though proponents of this
approach would argue that their goal is to leave interpretation open to the visitors (Riisen
1988, 14). In these times, only a few well-endowed museums, or those with secure public
funding, can risk such exhibits.
Museology, political economy and the future of the
Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon Museum in its present state continues to accord almost ideally with a purist
vision of museology. The historical origins of this situation were outlined above. In the former German Democratic Republic, it had a long-term budget like most other state-run
institutions in the world of Realsozialismus. Independence from admission fees, external
funds, private sponsors and advertisement — in short, an economic system which permitted
financial security — allowed the museum to conserve its traditional exhibitions.
Can the Pergamon Museum make another major transition to a new political situation
without changes? I contend that German unification produced a number of problems which
the institution did never have to deal with before, making fundamental changes almost
unavoidable. In the wake of the colonisation of the state-run GDR economy by the late capitalist West German one, long-term financial security has been lost. Numbers of visitors to
the museum are relatively low when compared to other metropolitan museums.
The museum has begun to try to attract visitors through new means. It has made its first
steps towards contextualisation. Audio guides were introduced that allow a path of circulation which the viewer chooses herself. In the corners of rooms, four-page sheets inform the
spectator about historical and culture historical aspects of the monuments exhibited.
Commerce is slowly intruding into the realm of Vart pour I'art. Part of the entrance hall is
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now rented to a bookseller, and the museum has a cafe. The Lange Nacht der Museen, a periodic nightly opening of many Berlin museums until 2:00 a.m., features, for example, oriental dance in the halls of the Pergamon, sometimes attracting up to 15,000 visitors in one night
(Putz 1999).
In a capitalist 'free' market system, there is no place for a museum almost completely funded by the state even when a Kulturhauptstadt is meant to underline German superpower aspirations. It is predictable that further 'deregulation' and political pressures will force the museum
to follow the course of so many other similar institutions which were founded in the 19th or
early 20th century. To have a balanced budget, large blockbuster exhibitions will probably be
organised. The many nearly empty halls of the museum leave plenty of space for shows on all
kinds of subjects. Private and especially corporate sponsors might be courted, and once a sponsor is found, the corporation's products would be advertised in a well-publicised exhibition.
The direction of likely future developments is exemplified by recent exhibitions in
American museums such as the blockbuster on 'The Lost World: The Life and Death of
Dinosaurs' at the American Museum of Natural History, which was supported - in very
obvious fashion - by Mercedes Benz, Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, or
another one on 'The Glory of Byzantium' at the Metropolitan Museum (Evans and Wixon
1997) sponsored by Citibank and Papastratos S.A. (Engelhardt 1997). In this way, museums
are turned temporarily into veritable 'profit centres,' and the income from a short-run blockbuster bridges the intermediate period until the next show of a similar kind.
If the Pergamon Museum followed the advice of museum marketing consultants such as
Blattberg and Broderick (1991, 336-338), it would turn from a former 'boutique museum' for
the few of an upper class into a 'mass marketing museum;' or, in Melhuish's words (1997, 22),
the 'temple' would be transformed into a 'forum'.The Ishtar gate, Pergamon altar, Miletus gate
and all the other architectural elements would eventually lose their quasi-sacred character. The
consequence of the necessity to attract a maximal number of visitors for economic survival is
the gloomy prospect of a complete commodification of the museums central exhibits.
Conclusion
In this paper, I have argued that complex cultural institutions such as the Pergamon Museum
in Berlin cannot be adequately analysed from a single perspective, whether from its history,
the visitors' impressions, curators' intentions or other. Looking at the same subject from sev120
eral sides gives deeper insights into the workings and changing (or unchanging) nature of
such institutions. My concern has been especially the views of potential visitors, and my way
of emphasising this aspect has been to read the museum from the perspective of two different kinds of visitors. These views have also to be located in historical time, and they relate in
complex ways to both history as external to the museum and to small or wide ranging
changes within it executed by curators and other staff. Recent changes at the Pergamon
Museum are not principally the result of a change in visitors' attitudes. Rather, they are due
to a radical historical change in the two Germanies. As a consequence of these developments,
the museum staff is being forced to rethink its relationship to visitors, and some of the inno-
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vations reflect the more general museological discussions referred to above.
Within these new museological trends, however, an old and more general rift between
proponents of a populist (pragmatist) and an elitist (purist) concept of culture continues. This
basic split in the cultures of industrialised societies was explored at length by Horkheimer
and Adorno (1969, 128-176) and is essential for an understanding of the potential future of
the Pergamon Museum. With reference to Marcuse (1937), they termed the elitist part of culture 'affirmative', the populist one 'culture industry'. 'Affirmative culture' denotes those artworks and art institutions which are relatively autonomous with respect to economic conditions and supply-demand mechanisms in a bourgeois society. In contrast, 'culture industry'
was defined as commodified, mass-(re)produced cultural items (Horkheimer and Adorno
1969,128-176; Miiller 1992).'°
According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the autonomy of affirmative culture, with its
non-commodified nature, permits the aesthetic experience only to a small part of society that
has been educated accordingly - what I have termed here the informed visitor. The two
readings of the Pergamon Museum presented in this paper are therefore part of affirmative
culture. So far, the Pergamon Museum remains a prototype for high-level aesthetic experiences, a space outside of the sphere of industrial capitalism with its pervasive commodification effects. This cultural temple is one of the arenas where the bourgeoisie celebrates the
antithesis of its own existence. Whereas daily life is dominated by the production and consumption of commodities under the club of instrumental reason, the museum keeps an extraordinary, almost sacred character because it allows the experience of unique, uncommodified
works of purported human genius (Jencks 1997,9-10). The ability to participate in such cults
can be interpreted as a sort of conspicuous consumption, a deliberate praxis meant to draw
a border between classes (Bourdieu 1984; Walsh 1992, 124; Duncan 1995).
Culture industry, on the other hand, is characterised by the endless, cheap reproduction
of art for profit under the guise of democratisation. It was originally destined for the growing mass of urban proletariat onto which was fobbed this industrial minimum of shallow
folklore. Such folklore remains the 'shadow,' the 'bad conscience' of affirmative culture
(Horkheimer and Adorno 1969, 145). The Disney Imperium is the hallmark of the museal
aspect of culture industry. However, many highly contextualised exhibits with all kinds of
technological aids move closer to the Disney concept and a takeover of Disney's exhibition
strategies is openly advocated by some curators and museum educators (e.g., King 1990). As
museums come under increasing economic pressure, corporate sponsorship has led to a mixture of art, history, archaeology and commerce, to a situation where objects turn into commodities which can be mass-reproduced virtually, on computer screens and films. Objects
themselves serve to sell a sponsor's product, as in the case of the Mercedes-Benz-supported
dinosaur exhibit.The vocabulary of some museological writings is most telling in this respect.
Museum objects turn into 'assets' or 'product lines' to be sold, and the diversity of visitors is
transformed into 'conflicting market segments,' the curator into a 'buyer in a retail establishment' (Blattberg and Broderick 1991, 335-336). In the age of consumerism, the commodification of antiquities and entire museums can hardly remain hidden. Blockbusters have
become part of the advertisement strategies of corporate sponsors. Economically, there is no
difference between 'The Glory of Byzantium' and a TV commercial for the latest GM car
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model from Detroit. It is my contention that the Pergamon Museum, in the transition from
a socialist to a late capitalist economic environment, has no choice but to develop from an
institution firmly anchored in the affirmative cultural sector into one which makes an uneasy
compromise between affirmative culture and culture industry.
If culture industries turn art and archaeological items into a commodity like all others,
does this mean that curators should try to return to elitist museums? Asked this way, the
answer is clearly, no. The reaction of visitors to the Pergamon Museum with its decontextualised traits suggests that it is a 'necropolis for objects and art' (Glasmeier 1992, 9). However,
the opportunistic move towards a contextualisation of objects that pleases the masses is just
as unsatisfactory. Such a change reduces objects solely to their presumed 'original' content
rather than taking some of their intrinsic values, such as form and aesthetics, into account.
Consumerism should not be taken for democratisation. It is more often a way towards
'mediocrisation' (Weil 1995; Macdonald 1998b, 134).
Is there another way out of this dilemma? Idealistically speaking, changes in two major
social realms outside the museum could help alleviate present problems. I take up an argument
that runs through Pierre Bourdieus work (Bourdieu 1984, 272-273; Bourdieu and Darbel
1990). A primary reason for the existence of museums is their function as means for the
upper classes to distinguish themselves from the lower classes in their contemplation of outstanding objects. As long as societies are class-based, there will always be the need for 'conspicuous consumption' of culture by the elites. Consequently, a precondition for fundamental change of the position of museums is the end of class-based societies.
Second, Bertold Brecht once remarked (1971) that the transition from art for the 'small
circle of connoisseurs' to a more democratic one does not originate in a transformation of
art itself or its representational context. Rather, Brecht argued for a better developed 'art of
seeing' on the part of spectators. Understanding of objects (whether artistic, archaeological,
ethnographic or other) is always based on a capacity for close observation. This kind of attention to detail needs to be fostered especially at a young age to enable people literally to see
what is in front of them. The idea itself, however, may be branded as elitist since it puts the
burden for the improvement of museums on the visitors — something quite unfashionable in
the present world with its focus on consumers' rights and choices.
Exhibitions which permit a multitude of diverse readings stand in opposition to the recreative aspect claimed by pragmatists for contemporary museums. Visiting a museum such
as the Pergamon meant and means to a certain extent a serious attempt at understanding the
unfamiliar, something more similar to attending a college class than visiting Disneyland.
122
Horkheimer and Adorno's pessimistic view of culture as either elitist or market-driven is a
seldom admitted undercurrent in the debate over the future of museums. Recent ideas in
museology have certainly done a service to museum visitors, but this development is without a solution for the basic dilemma of attracting visitors and giving objects an adequate place
at the same time. Museums will not overcome this problem as long as art can be a commodity
and commodities can be displayed as 'art.'
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Epilogue
From the time of submission of this paper to its printing, several important developments
occurred which corroborate my presentiments about the Pergamon Museum's future.
According to present planning, the major museums on the Museumsinsel in Berlin will be
connected by a system of underground passages (an obvious imitation of Pei's famous
entrance to the Louvre) which will permit easy access to a few central works of art in each
museum (Monninger and Preuss 1999).This 'tourist race track', with the Pergamon Museum
at its centre, clearly separates the masses of visitors from the connoisseurs, and thus conforms
all too well to the combination of cultural supermarket and 'boutique museum' in one and
the same institution. The concept is touted proudly by some museum representatives as a
unique separation of masses and elite (Wildung, quoted in Bernau 2000), whereas some commentators criticise the market orientation of the museum directors and compare the funnelling of mass visitors through narrow underground access passages to rats in urban sewers
(Monninger 1999). Following R.Venturi, one might call the idea of such specific entrances
only to the major works of art a system of interconnected 'vomitoria' (quoted in Jencks 1997,
1 l).The elite may well enter through other doors, but their consumption of art in this museum, thinly veiled as autonomous appreciation, is in fact predicated on the existence of the
'rats' in the basement. It will be interesting to pursue whether the Pergamon Museum will
as a result of these developments change from what I called here a decontextualised strategy
of exhibition of the 'masterpieces' to a mass-appealing material discourse that includes videoanimation, computer games and other technologies of entertainment, thereby restricting the
range of possible readings of the exhibited objects.
A major architectural addition to the Pergamon Museum itself was decided upon on May
23, 2000. An arcade-like building, designed by the architect Ungers, will partly close off the
free view into the courtyard of the museum (cf. figure 2). Above the arcade, a glass wing will
house the Egyptian architectural monuments (for example, the Sahure temple and Kalabsha
gate); from here, the Near Eastern wing will again be directly accessible (Bernau 2000;
Monninger 2000), with another architectural simulacrum, the famous Tell Halaf gate, as an
entrance. Before the Second World War, this gate had been the portal to a museum devoted
entirely to the site of Tell Halaf. Bombed and largely destroyed in the course of the war, some
fragments of the gate •were saved from the ruins and stored in the basement of the Pergamon
Museum. The reconstruction of the gate turns it into a mere image of the Tell Halaf
Museum's representation which in turn was based on the ruins from the excavations. All of
these additions stay in the old tradition of an architectural museum.
123
The long-term perspective clearly suggests that the Pergamon Museum is now forced to
adapt to developments outside its walls. It took ten years after the abrupt historical changes
in 1989 until a definitive new plan for the museum emerged. It will be the hub for a huge
complex of culture industry where the visitors outwardly are treated with friendliness - the
same canned cordiality you encounter in communications with personnel in MacDonald's
or American supermarkets.
I began this paper with an account of my personal impressions of the Pergamon Museum
as boring and vacuous. Over time, my views have changed. I now consider this museum a
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quite interesting cultural establishment, to the extent that it draws me magically to this place
when I visit Berlin. However, this is not because of the objects it houses. I learned to comprehend the museum itself as an artistic and indirectly political ensemble in a complex historical and economic setting.
Acknowledgements
This essay is a reworked and extended version of a talk I presented in 1997 at the 'Columbia
University Seminar on the Ancient Near East' in New York. I thank Marc van de Mieroop
for the invitation, inspiration and for his hospitality. Nikolaus Bernau, Alexis Castor, Nicola
Criisemann, Geoff Emberling, Cornelius Holtorf, Mary Price as well as two anonymous
reviewers and Peter van Dommelen from Archaeological Dialogues provided helpful comments
and important criticism. Any remaining errors and omissions are mine. I thank students and
faculty members at Bryn Mawr College for many fruitful discussions. Particular thanks go to
Alice Donohue for a very close reading that improved the paper on many points and to
Nikolaus Bernau and Nicola Criisemann for insisting on historical and factual correctness.
Long conversations with Susan Pollock were essential in the initial formulation of ideas and
their elaboration.
Notes
124
For more detailed accounts see among others
here. Even after
Gaehtgens 1996, Criisemann 2000 and Bernau
Germanies, group guides began tours in the tra-
n.d.
ditional way in the Hellenistic room. Nowadays,
For a more apologetic account of the German
an audio-guide lets the visitor choose where to
project and the transfer of the altar to Germany
go first. Most group guides, however, follow
see Kastner 1997.
roughly a chronological sequence, beginning
of the two
For the case of the British use of museums in
with the Pergamon altar, going through the
support of their dominance over India, see the
Hellenistic room and back to the later Roman
excellent chapters in Cohn (1996: 76-105) and
remains on the other side of the main hall with
Prakash (1999: 17-52).
the altar (Nicola Criisemann, personal commu-
To reach the Classical section of the museum,
nication).
one had originally to traverse the northern or
Up to 1984, when the side entrance through the
southern wing. It does not matter to my read-
Near Eastern wing was closed, one had to go
ings whether the visitor approached the
through the Ishtar gate to approach the
Classical section through the Near Eastern
Pergamon altar. In that case, the main monu-
wing, or the other way around.
ment in the first Classical hall, the Miletus gate,
was in the back of the viewer.
This was the pre-Second World War arrange-
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unification
ment (Massow 1936, plan opposite p. 5). In
I thank an anonymous reviewer for drawing my
1984, the present-day entrance room was added,
attention to this point.
and the early Classical material is now exhibited
See, for example, Karp et al. 1992; book reviews
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by Sherman (1990), Eisner (1996) and Gordon
lobbying power to stop curators from mounting
(1996) treat a total of 16 books on the subject.
any unconventional exhibit. Another argument
Lubar's remark (1997, 24) on contemporary
against critical exhibits in public museums is
exhibits reveals such self-censorship: "In the
that taxpayers have the right to benefit from the
post-'-Etto/tf Gay' world of history museums,
way their money is spent in such expensive
curators must think increasingly carefully about
institutions (Blattberg and Broderick 1991,333-
the tone of exhibitions. Once we did not much
334). Curators such as Stephen Weil have stern-
worry about what the public brought with
ly refused such ideas as a case of censorship
them to exhibits, but that is not the case any-
(1995, 183-198).
more. The public is demanding to be considered
The distinction between two kinds of culture is
a partner in the creation of meaning". While this
vigorously denied by followers of the Cultural
sounds like a strategy of "empowering" a public,
Studies ideas that originated in Birmingham in
it is in fact a recognition that particularly influ-
the 1960s. For a careful assessment and critique
ential visitor groups, such as veterans, have the
of these ideas, cf. Agger 1992, 76-79.
125
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discussion
WHERE DOES HISTORY MEET THEORY? CLASSICAL HERITAGE, PAST AND PRESENT
Giovanna Ceserani
In an extremely rich and informed essay, Bernbeck offers sophisticated insights into the problems confronting museology today. Using the Pergamon Museum as a case study, he draws
out specific issues facing the museum into broader theoretical questions, and thus reaches
°
conclusions of much wider relevance. Finally, he brings these wider theoretical views back to
^
the particular situation in order to comment on future plans for the Pergamon Museum. As
g1
if offering a virtual tour, Bernbeck takes the reader through the museum offering a variety
5
of perspectives — historical outline, colonialist and post-modern visitor's viewpoints, current
o
debates and conflicting theories in museology, critical theory of museum culture consump-
|
tion, planning for changes in the Pergamon Museum. But he is also well aware of the politics of such a 'reading tour', and his essay, quite self-consciously, offers a series of possibilities
for engaging in discussion and further dialogue.
Precisely because the essay is so richly layered, I will only comment on areas of my own
expertise. For it is also a case study in the use of classical antiquity in modern Europe, just as
much as an essay in museological theory. Certainly one of the things I have learned from
Bernbeck is how intertwined the two can be. Nevertheless, some crucial points from the 'historical background' may help us clarify the more general questions. I will therefore take
Bernbeck's cue, and attempt to show how the relationship between the historical and theoretical parts can be viewed differently in a way which allows history to shape more substantially the formulation of theories for the present.
Case studies are a convenient way to bridge the gap between the general and the particular, and Bernbeck exploits this well. But case studies also imply limitations. Bernbeck rightly begins by mentioning the Louvre and the British Museum, showing how the Pergamon
Museum in Berlin was built largely in competition with other national powers. But here,
more information is necessary to fully appreciate the case of the Pergamon Museum. The
British Museum was first founded in 1753 by an Act of Parliament, when King George gave
his assent to the purchase of the collections of the antiquarian Sir Sloane, which ranged from
naturalia to Greek painted vases. The original hosting building was Montague House. After
the purchase of the Bassae sculptures (1814) and the Parthenon frieze (1816), in 1823 a new
126
building was planned; this, completed in 1853, is the one we still visit today. The Louvre
Museum, on the other hand, was founded in 1793 by the French Republic after the
Revolution, in order to offer public access to the collections. The palace itself dates back to
the 12th century A.D. Originally built as a chateau fort, the royal palace enjoyed various architectural modifications until Louis XIV moved the residence to Versailles.The royal palace was
thus left empty and later turned into a museum by the Republic. Thus, the Pergamon
Museum's establishment, as Bernbeck notes, was much later, just as the unification of
Germany was also much later. Taking a closer look at the Pergamon Museum's 'competitors'
introduces a rich historical context which spreads over a longer span of time, and which is
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crucial to the understanding of the Pergamon Museum.
Consider the case of another museum, which should be understood in this climate of
international competition and helps to illustrate it further: this is the Glyptothek in Munich
— at the time capital of the independent Kingdom of Bavaria — built around the pediments
from Aegina.The story begins in the 1810s.The statues were unearthed in 1811 and an auction was announced in 1812. The British ambassador turned up at the wrong place and so
Ludwig of Bavaria secured the statues and had the museum built. I put forward this amount
of information in a spirit of provocation, for it might point beyond the scope of Bernbeck's
essay. Nevertheless, some of it is necessary to appreciate the dynamics of the politics of international cultural competition (see Boswell and Evans 1999). O n e needs to examine differences and similarities, both in museum planning and in history of the buildings. This in turn
helps clarify some of the choices made in founding the new Pergamon Museum.
This wider picture also makes one aware of the difference between shaping the British
Museum or the Munich Glyptothek with reference to classical antiquity in the early nineteenth century and a similar operation a century later. Philhellenism as a cultural phenomenon is a feature of modern times, which can be traced back to the second half of the eighteenth century. But it was not defined once and for all at that time. Berbeck rightly points
out that the German-speaking countries chose Greece to distinguish themselves from the
French, who were conceived as akin to R o m e . But this is an episode in a long and diverse
cultural process, punctuated by ongoing negotiations: what about the British Victorians and
the ancient Greeks? And the French? These issues need to be taken into consideration in
appreciating the Pergamon Museum as part of the system of cultural competition, and looking at its relationship with preceding museums.
The Pergamon Museum claimed its originality as the first museum dedicated to architecture. It is true that the architectural decorations, from Bassae, the Parthenon and Aegina
were conceptualised as decorative arts in the museums which exposed them: they were
placed on the walls as if they were hanging pictures. However, the complex relationship
between model-following and innovation is clarified further when we understand that, next
to the Altar, the Pergamon sculptural frieze on the walls in Berlin surrounds the visitors, just
as does the Parthenon exhibit in London. Indeed, the tension between 'architecture' and 'art'
- a crucial point in Bernbeck's paper - was already voiced at the time. The French excavator Houssillier, who was in direct competition with Humann at Dydima in the 1890s, wrote
in his report to the French ministry that his findings were 'more useful than wonderful',
because they contributed to knowledge of architectural developments rather providing
France with works of art (Houssillier to Education Ministry, August 1895, A N 17/17243).
127
This episode reminds us again of the tensions surrounding Classical Antiquity and that these
tensions are part of a continuous process that has been, and continues, to be played. We need
an international context in order to do justice to it. Defining Berlin as the Kulturhaupstadt in
the context of the relocation of the German capital to Berlin hints at this wider phenomenon even today.
Bernbeck's essay also sketches the 'spiritual kinship' among Germans and ancient Greece,
and puts it forward as one of the reasons for the museum's resilience. This should also stimulate further historical reflection, since a more dynamic view of this kinship benefits
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Bernbeck's general argument. Having delineated the character of this Hellenic self-chosen
heritage and having brought its origins back to Winckelmann, Bernbeck himself reports that
by 1930s a decline in classical knowledge made it harder for the German public to appreciate the monuments exhibited in the Pergamon Museum. Since the museum was planned in
1910 and opened to the public only in 1930 this statement is disturbing. It at least allows for
a wide gap between the perceptions of the museum planners and the public at the time.
Suzanne Marchand (1996) has made this precise change the focus of her work. She has studied not only the rise but also the demise of the philhellenic ideal, entangled as it was in a
complex process of institutionalisation, professionalisation and disciplinary specialisation.
Rather than highlighting a cultural continuity in German society, she exposes how the ideal
kinship was also corroded by socio-cultural phenomena. In her account, characters like
Humann, the discoverer of Pergamon altar, figure prominently. For they contributed to the
creation of a 'big digs' archaeology which, because of its specialised and positivist character,
eventually came into conflict with the traditional pedagogical values attributed to classical
antiquity. German expeditions in the Near East also figure in Marchand's picture. She reads
the continuing penetration into the east as another sign of the growing hiatus between the ideal
humanist Bildung and the acquisition of objects and sites. Bernbeck's acute reading of the contrasts between the presentation of the oriental wings and the classical ones and their colonialist undertones thus gains further significance. The ambiguity of the Oriental wings in the
Pergamon Museum exposed by Bernbeck — which imply a closer link between Germany and
the ancient Near East, rather than with its own Medieval history, but at the same time projecting the Near East as inferior in comparison with the Greek classical world - becomes more
complex when approached in its historical context. Consider the irony of a museum meant to
celebrate an empire which had fallen by the time its gates were open to the public.
A similarly ambiguous but much more recent comparison is provided by the National
Museum of Reggio Calabria in South Italy. This case study reveals a wider picture — both
chronologically and geographically - for appreciating the relationship between the modern
western world and classical antiquity as a diverse and continuing process. It furthermore allows
us to appreciate the potential of the multi-perspective approach advocated by Bernbeck. The
National Museum of Reggio Calabria is a provincial museum, born of controversies: it was
only in the aftermath of the 1908 earthquake that the locals accepted a national museum
among the buildings of the reconstruction; the museum was planned in 1932 and opened to
the public in 1954. It is interestingly placed in one of the regions from which many finds would
take off to reach other western museums: it is thus inextricably caught between a classical and
128
European heritage on the one hand and a local one on the other hand, with its local prehistoric material enjoying a direct ancient connection with the classical one. Recently, new fame
arrived because of the so-called 'Bronzes from Riace': two naked male figures, masterpieces of
fifth-century Athens, recovered in the sea off Calabria. These were first exhibited in R o m e and
finally went back to Reggio Calabria as a result of struggles between regionalism and centralisation. This event in the museum history also had curatorial consequences. The area devised
for the Bronzes follows most up-to-date museological standards. It is visitor friendly, it hosts
videos illustrating the recovery and the restoration of the bronzes, and posters which explain
modern scholarly controversies about the dating of the bronzes, and its consequences on the
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history of classical art. This starkly contrasts with the upstairs rooms, where the old-fashioned
exhibition reigns. It is the realm of'dullness' as described by Bernbeck: lack of contextualisation, old showcases in which the objects follow a mixture of topographical, chronological and
typological order, illustrated by faded cards which only mention dates and place names.
Bernbecks' approach and its combination of different perspectives would do much for the
understanding of this museum, taking into consideration next to an historical perspective, the
visitors' and curators' ones. Such a case study would again show how necessary an international perspective is when discussing the use and representation of the classical heritage: only at
a general European level can its conflictually charged nature be appreciated. Again, a sophisticated historical perspective would be needed to come to terms with the complex nature of
cultural politics — of representations of the past and their ideologies — which is so well encapsulated in the paradox of the Pergamon Museum's resilience to change illustrated by
Bernbecks essay.
My comments have mainly focused on the historical sections of Bernbecks essay, and I
am well aware that some of these issues are beyond the scope of his article. However,
Bernbecks appreciation that a historical perspective is necessary might itself be worthy of
further comment, especially in such a forum as this, which seeks to expand theoretical
archaeological dialogue. Much recent theoretical discussion in the disciplines related to material culture makes use of an historical perspective. As much as I agree on the importance of
doing so, this new type of practice carries its own risk. There is a tendency to compress large
amounts of historiographic information in very few paragraphs. Further, the 'historical' sections produced often would not satisfy the criteria of most historians (see Marchand and
Grafton 1997). I am not advocating that archaeologists and museologists become professional historians. But a further effort to reflect on the nature and complexities of modern history can be a feasible and rewarding goal. The field of history offers less simple 'answers' rather
than its own series of complexities, which certainly reward further reflection. Without this
one is caught in a problematic dichotomy: next to the multivocal and irreducibly complex
present and its theories, one finds a 'recent' univocal past which is taken for granted and
sealed off from reflection. In short, a multi-faceted perspective on modern history is necessary for theoretical reflection.
The question of the Pergamon Museum's resilience to change, despite the radical political differences in the regimes under which it existed, as is so clearly highlighted by Bernbeck,
is a very interesting one in this respect. Neither the relative immobility of the architectural
objects nor the lack of written comments, however, provide exhaustive reasons to explain this
paradox. As the spiritual kinship with ancient Greece itself underwent historical mutations
129
and changes and thus cannot explain this resilience to change, it is certainly possible that the
particularity of the Pergamon Museum — an architectural structure built to hold and display
other architectural structures, and thus quite limited in its potential for variations - helps to
push further the investigation of how 'museum exhibits are by necessity political', perhaps
more so than in the case of the Louvre or the British Museums. The contrast between the
museum's flexibility to different political readings and the static character of its exhibits, calls
for a more complex theory of the relationship between ideology and the politics of culture
as well as for an informed historical perspective on these matters.
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THE CONSTRUCTION OF MEANINGS IN MUSEUMS
Elizabeth Crooke
The museum is a construct; the collections and the physical building are enclosed by a structure, invisible to the eye, which is created by the context in which the museum is being
viewed. The nature of that structure will depend on the viewer; he or she will make his or
her own meanings. Reinhard Bernbeck, in his paper The exhibition of architecture and the architecture of an exhibition, has investigated how the Pergamon Museum can simultaneously mean
different things to different people, according to their cultural perspective. What is at the core
of this is the political and social nature of museums, and one of the most dominant aspects
of this is the demonstration of power. This determines how the museum collects, interprets
and displays both the objects and itself, and is related to both Bernbeck's colonial and postmodern readings of the museum, as well has his discussion of 'pragmatist' and 'purist'
approaches to museums in general. Though his paper is based on a case study of the
Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the issues he raised are applicable to museums elsewhere. In
this response to his paper, I am going to look at what this demonstration of power reflects
about what museums mean and how they function and relate Bernbeck's evaluation to museum development I am most familiar with, that in Ireland.
This core theme is demonstrated in Bernbeck's description of the museum as a 'visible
public sign of power'; and, though he can look at the history of the Pergamon Museum
through various lenses, this concept remains central. In his paper he stated that the colonialist mindset will be happy with the evidence for evolutionary progress, and the post modernist
will be content with the flexibility that exists to make one's own meanings. In each case the
objects are malleable and become the manifestation of a certain way of thinking. This manipulation begins beyond the object and outside the museum and its exhibits. As noted by
Bernbeck, the Pergamon Museum was able to survive the changing political regimes because
it was so apparently easy to lay down self-legitimising interpretations. One can also argue that
the political dimension of museums comes as much from within the walls as from the outside. The collectors must decide what to collect and how to display it. Before the museum is
even harnessed for political purposes, it has already been part of an exercise of value judgement, and this is a continual process. The past is a tool, so no matter whether one takes a
purist or a pragmatist approach to museums, one still forces a social or political discourse
upon the object. This has serious implications for our understanding of museum meanings.
In Bernbeck's paper the impact of the political regime on how museums view themselves
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and are viewed is very clear.
The Pergamon case also demonstrates the importance of museum histories. Considering
the processes and movements behind the foundation of museums can often reveal the inherited social and political context of decades, and sometimes centuries, of collecting, conserving and displaying. Each of these activities adds a layer to the complexity of museum meanings. To understand today's museums with greater clarity we should read their histories and
then engage with their present form. In nineteenth century Ireland, the idea of forming a
national collection was part of the agenda of cultural nationalism. As the subsequent museum emerged it fell somewhere between the demands of nationalism and the interests of the
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Department of Science and Art in South Kensington in London, which was its founder. The
former wanted a museum that reflected Irish identity, as defined by Irish nationalism and cultural revivalists; and the latter aimed to develop a museum that was part of the educational
and industrial interests of the Kingdom. As the power dynamics changed, and Ireland moved
towards independence, this was reflected in changes in the name of the museum and the layout of the exhibitions. The rich material remains of Ireland's early history that were redisplayed in the 1920s-30s were central to this new arrangement. Today, these collections still
have prominence within the museum and are still used as symbols of the Irish nation (Crooke
2000).This is demonstrated by the fact that images of the objects are reproduced on the state
stamps. However, the relationship between the museum, its collections and its contribution
to political or national identity has changed since its foundation. As Bernbeck considers the
current relevance of the Pergamon Museum to its visitors, it is useful now to think of what
his concepts of pragmatism and purism have to contribute to our understanding of the significance of museums in Ireland today.
Bernbeck has shown that the political context creates museum meanings; the desire to
legitimise gives the museum a purpose. As a result the Pergamon Museum was able to survive different political regimes because its displays lent themselves easily to reinterpretation.
In applying the 'purist' and 'pragmatist' approaches to this inheritance, Bernbeck triggers
interesting questions about museums. He refers at the beginning of his paper to having been
'bored' by the Pergamon Museum. Times change and Bernbeck suggests, towards the end of
his paper, that the Pergamon Museum needs to change, from its current purist perspective to
one which is more pragmatist, in order to survive. There are a number of issues one can raise
here. Firstly, when the Pergamon Museum was first opened it may have been considered
much more successful by many of its visitors because the context in which it was being considered. Secondly, we can use Bernbeck's paper as an opportunity to think further about how
people, both those on the inside and the outside, engage with museums, and whether it is
useful to classify that relationship.
Maybe, when the Pergamon exhibitions were first mounted there was less need to interpret the exhibits with text panels and other media because the visitors brought that understanding with them, this of course is assuming that the 'temple' did not exclude in the first
place. As I make this point about visitors bringing the context, I have the National Museum
of Ireland in mind. This is a museum that was borne out of politically astute times. Decades
of nationalism disseminated in public addresses, political newspapers and popular histories
gave the objects meaning. Words were not necessary, the people had already been taught, and
the archaeological collections were the material evidence of that teaching. The objects were
the symbols of nationalism, which to succeed must promote itself as a shared 'pragmatist'
identity. When the material remains of the Bronze Age and Early Christian Period are no
longer essential legitimisation for political aspirations do they loose their value? Today, in an
Ireland where cultural nationalism is no longer as relevant the exhibitions in the museum
risk, according to Bernbeck's classifications, being seen as purist. The archaeological collections are exhibited with minimal labelling, and without sound, dioramas and film. Research
and scholarship are still central to this department. The collections are the same, but do they
now have to be reinterpreted to reflect the changes in time? Should the National Museum
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of Ireland and the Pergamon pursue what Bernbeck defines as the pragmatist solution in
order to improve themselves?
It is important that the museum becomes more of a forum and less of a temple. But I do
not agree that it is necessary to be a mass-marketing museum, to employ the Disney concept, in order to be successful. I also do not think that the only future for museums that do
want to become more popular is a 'gloomy prospect of complete commodification'. A successful future for museums will need to have elements of both purism and pragmatism, as
defined by Bernbeck. Bernbeck states that the purpose of pragmatism in the museum is to
be a 'distraction from a high level of stress' and the goal of purism is to 'espouse critical points
of view'. Relate this to, for instance, the difference between the success of theTate Modern
and the Dome, which both opened in London during 2000. By Bernbeck's definitions the
Tate Modern is closer to the purist end of the spectrum and the Dome is high technology
and leisure-led, with the aim to entertain, be consumer orientated and populist. The Tate
Modern has been received far more favourably than the Dome. In Ireland, the heritage centres that opened in the early 1990s are failing to attract predicted visitor numbers, and some
have closed; yet the more traditional museums remain. The most recent exhibition to open
at the Imperial War Museum, which is on the subject of the Holocaust, invites visitors to
reflect, engage and question. The term entertainment cannot be applied to this exhibition,
yet visitor numbers have to be controlled by timed tickets.
Museum audiences are active, they include the visitors and the non-visitors, and they are
at the core of a museum's success. Achievement is not bred on the commodification of museums, and as Bernbeck says 'consumerism should not be taken for democratisation'. Instead,
museums must combine research and development with audience awareness. This means that
museums should not be approached in a linear fashion, with academia on one end and entertainment at the other. Rather, this should be a circular process taking inspiration from many
directions and feeding this into the centre. What is at the centre? It is not the museum or its
collections, it is the people; and this includes the people past, present and future, those who
created the material remains, those w h o choose to visit and those who do not, the people
who work in museums and the people of the future. People have always been at the core of
what museums do. Even when they were bastions of privilege, exclusive, and propagated a
dominant world-view, museums were still about people and the messages that could be
passed to those people. Bernbeck's paper has raised many interesting questions about museums that are useful to think about. We should reflect on why museums arise and what they
have been used for. We ought to think further about the relationship curators have with
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objects, people and the community. Most fundamentally, we should remind ourselves that we
today are responsible for creating museum futures.
MUSEUM HISTORY, MUSEUM THEORY: A REPLY
Reinhard Bernbeck
I thank the commentators for their thoughtful and constructive critiques of my paper. They
have led me to reconsider some substantial issues. In my reply, I will address five major themes
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around which the comments are centred: the question of historical detail; the development
of German philhellenism; national identity and politics of culture; commodification and
museological work; and finally the idea of museums as institutions 'for the people'.
History and fora of publication Giovanna Ceserani raises a fundamental problem when she
admonishes me as well as other scholars of material culture to be more scrupulous and
exhaustive in the use of historical data. The complexity of historical processes should not be
boiled down to some insufficient essentials. The point is well taken, especially in view of
some of the more famous 'museum readings' in a cultural studies manner, such as Donna
Haraway's 'Teddy Bear Patriarchy' (1984; see Schudson 1997). However, from another angle,
a question of the relationship between form and content of writing enters the scene: how
much historical detail can one provide in a textual format that is shorter than a book length
treatment? Is it really necessary to include, as Ceserani proposes, a history of older European
museums such as the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Miinchner Glyptothek in order
to discuss (historically contingent) readings of the Pergamon Museum? And why not include
the history of the Asiatic department of the South Kensington Museum, now known as the
Victoria and Albert Museum (see Barringer 1998)? Where do we draw a line and consider a
narration to be saturated with enough detail? Is this simply a matter of content or do considerations of form play a role here?
Academic disciplines differ in their preferred textual formats, with history leaning
towards monographs, social sciences towards a mixture of paper length treatments and books,
and natural sciences towards short, multi-authored papers. Such preferences are themselves
products of historical processes, but also results of a strong connection between content and
textual format. As an anthropologist and social scientist (with historical leanings), I see a value
both in long, detailed accounts and shorter treatments of a particular problem or topic.
In the latter case, the options are either to disregard the history of a subject or to include
as much historical detail as judged to be needed for the general purpose of the paper. I am
of the opinion that an abridged history is sufficient for an understanding of a subject such as
mine, which tries to view the Pergamon Museum from different angles: it combines exhibit structure, reading and museological theories with a degree of chronological depth.
However, the risk of including a 'brief history' lies in the accompanying need for a strict
choice of specific elements, a necessarily highly selective process that opens the door to disagreements and counter-interpretations. In my view, the demand for greater exhaustiveness
is justified in the case of Ceserani s discussion of my treatment of German philhellenism (see
below); but relative 'completeness' of a history does not alone make it acceptable. Equally
133
important are plot structure and trope (White 1978). Exhaustiveness serves as a shield of
authority for the historian. Despite my conviction that there is a place for highly selective
histories, I concede that I should probably not have used the heading 'The historian's view'
in my paper, in order to avoid the impression that this section is something more than a brief
historical background for the readings of the Pergamon Museum.
Interestingly, comments by fellow anthropologists on earlier, longer versions of my paper
suggested again and again that I cut substantially the historical discussion, especially the historical context of museum formation, in favour of more detail in the two readings and muse0A
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ological considerations at the end of the paper. Clearly, writing at the edge of two disciplines
cannot easily fulfil the requirements of either one.
Ceserani observes that my paper contrasts a multivocal present (of museum readings) with
a univocal past. This seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding, namely that museological theories and the two readings in my paper are situated in a historical 'present', whereas the Pergamon Museum's relationship to successive political systems is depicted as a succession of unidimensional past conditions of institutional existence. First, I speak explicitly in
my paper about (past and present) ideologies of political systems, a notion that in one of its
most famous definitions means that 'the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas' (Marx and Engels 1965); this leaves the possibility for 'non-ruling' ideas and a multivocal past wide open. Second, I wish to separate the theoretical reflections about museological problems from historical thinking. In social science, there has to be a place for a theorizing process without the tyranny of immediately historicizing it. Otherwise, we would just
write histories of theory and stop developing any new theories. Third, the requirement of
'multivocality' is rarely attained in historical narratives themselves: multivocality is not just
achieved by describing differing opinions of the past from a single (historian's) viewpoint, as
Ceserani seems to imply, but rather by actively taking different (insiders') perspectives in
order to approach the complexities of a past (see Munslow 1997, 150-151) - an approach
that runs counter to the very basic tenet of the historical profession of'making sense' out of
the past. Histories that choose a single (insider or outsider) perspective in their accounts of
the past, including famous works such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou (1975) or
Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht (1961), have in this sense to be rated as univocal, too.
The History of philheUenism in Germany and Europe My discussion of the history of philhellenism became overly brief, and I thank Ceserani for providing additional facets and detail
of its development. Especially valuable is her mention of the varying social scale of this phenomenon. As Landfester (1996) has argued, Winckelmann's original philheUenism was
'European' and became a national German phenomenon only in the course of the 19th century. He also points out that since the middle of the 19th century, ancient Greek was taught
in Gymnasien mostly as grammar and a kind of 'practised (philological, R.B.) logic'
(Landfester 1996, 217), a linguistic shell without kernel, confirming from a different angle
Ceserani's discussion of philhellenism's gradual sklerotization. Paradoxically, the placement of
objects in a museum removes them from their historicity as well and inserts them in a presumed eternal space of preservation (see also Maleuvre 1999, 57). The Pergamon Museum's
134
establishment must therefore also be seen as a contribution to the end of a dynamic philhellenism.
Ceserani rightly points out that I contradict myself by stating that a decline in knowledge
about Classical Antiquity in the 1930s is evidence for an earlier time when a public could
competently apprehend what they saw in the museum. This statement is of course not valid
for the Pergamon Museum, since the museum opened only in 1930. However, the observation applies to some of the museum's important exhibits, i.e. the Pergamon altar which was
already displayed in the smaller Interimsbau in the years 1898-1908.
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Another aspect of the history of philhellenism, its relationship to German orientalism, is usefully amended by Ceserani. Her remarks lead me to propose an alternative reading of the
Near Eastern remains than the one presented in the original paper, rendering their nature
even more ambiguous. I had argued that the Near Eastern archaeology section was nearer to
the Classical world than Islamic material culture, and that this was probably due to its perceived connections to the Bible. U p o n re-reading this section and further reflection, it seems
to me now that an underlying theme of German orientalism was the replacement of the Old
Testament as a 'founding text' by other, older 'roots'. Already Schopenhauer's mid-19th century works with their reference to Indian philosophy and 'nothingness' as opposed to
Judaism's presumed focus on the 'will-to-live' must be seen in this context (Bhatt 2000).
Later, the infamous Babel-Bibel-Streit, spurned by the antisemitic assyriologist Friedrich von
Delitzsch's lecture in 1902 in the presence ofWilhelm II, was certainly part of a movement
that aimed to sever the links between Old and N e w Testament by arguing that there was not
much originality in the Old Testament. Close archaeological and historical connections
between Christianity and Jewish culture and religion were denied. O n the art historical side,
Nicola Criisemann (pers. communication) informs me that already in 1860, a collection of
plaster casts of Assyrian reliefs was mounted in the Neues Museum, and that comments in
guides from the second half of the 19th century refer to such works as the precursors of
emerging Greek art. While I had argued originally that the links to the Bible made Near
Eastern archaeological remains an acceptable neighbour of the Classical works in the
Pergamon Museum, it seems to me now that items from Babylonia, Assyria and other parts
of the Near East became highly desirable for an increasingly anti-semitic political and scholarly world as a substitute for the material world of the Old Testament.
National identity and politics of culture A number of other historical issues, addressed by
both Crooke and Ceserani, add important insights about the relationship of museums and
national history. Both commentators address the question of how museums - in this case the
Pergamon - contribute to the formation of national identities. Such research is of great interest, and Crooke's work on the National Museum in Ireland, like other investigations in a similar vein, is a case in point (see generally Duncan 1991; Maleuvre 1999). I would add, though,
that the goal of my paper is not to account for the formation of German national identity
through a museum, but rather to show the persistence of a museum despite the changing character of nationalist ideologies. As I hope to have made clear, nationalism cannot at least in the
German case be understood in the singular. The term may imply a unified general concept,
but the historical reality of German 20th century presents us with radically changing ideas
135
about a nation.
The present fundamental changes in the museum are, I submit, due to a radically new economic rather than political context. However, public discourse legitimises these changes in
political terms. The present discussion between Habermas's Verfassungspatriotismus, relying on
(former) West German ideals of a nearly optimal German constitution, and the revisionist
New Right with supremacist undertones continues older political debates about'the nation'.
In October of 2000, the notion of a Leitkultur was brought up by a politician from the
Christian Democrats. This vague term is seemingly meant to characterise the traditional
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German 'affirmative culture' plus rural folklore and distinguish it especially from foreign cultural elements. It is part of a general public xenophobic discourse in Germany (Becker 2000;
Mohr 2000).The Pergamon Museum and many other 'affirmative culture' institutions (e.g.,
the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) are implicitly drawn into such discourses. Is the Near
Eastern wing of the Pergamon Museum part of'German Leitkultur? If not, how should it be
dealt with? The spectre of Entartete Kunst raises its ugly head again....
It is my conviction that the Verfassungspatriotismus, a construct that combines an economic
and a political system (a sort of democratic capitalism) will prevail in these current disputes.
Recent realignments of the German industry with the Social Democrats against the
Christian Democratic Leitkulturalists underscore a substantive change in post-unification
Germany. The Pergamon Museum, with the planned modifications, is part of a general trend
to 'westernise' and commodity all of Germany and bind it into the general ideological realm
of Verfassungspatriotismus. A strong capitalist economy that is interested in international connections, among them the highly profitable sector of international tourism, has no place for
an anachronistic, exclusionary national concept promoted by the political right. In all likelihood, economic interests will dominate over parochial political ideologies, and the museum's
restructuring will be accomplished as planned, promoting an ideology that includes an openness to an 'outer world' as well as the commodification of cultural relics. I do not wish to be
misunderstood: it should be clear from my paper that I see the Verfassungspatriotismus-centred
ideas and their relationship to the Pergamon Museum as the lesser of two evils. In present
German politics, it is a step away from backwards-oriented and xenophobic nationalism, but
it remains a discourse that does not question our commodity-based relationship to the object
world (see below).
Pragmatism, purism and commodification Crooke criticises my distinction of 'pragmatist'
and 'purist' strands of museology as an overdrawn 'classification'. She reads the two concepts
as particular relationships between museum insiders and outsiders. However, I see them both
rather as imagined relationships from the perspective of insiders. Even with a complex apparatus of visitor questionnaires designed by specialists, the planning of exhibits is by necessity
based on projected, not real visitors. Exceptions are cases in which visitors are invited to contribute to a planned exhibit and 'People's Shows', where the role of the curator-exhibit planner is handed over to private collectors of items that are often outside the traditional realm
of museum collections (Lovatt 1997). I do not know of such exhibits in any of the major
museums in European capitals such as the Louvre, the British or the Pergamon Museum.
136
There is no real interaction between inside and outside in the case of such hypertrophic
museum institutions.
There is, however, a history of such imagined relationships which, because of its projected nature, depends and depended heavily on the museum staff and its orientation. While
Crooke argues that in the case of the National Museum of Ireland, 'words were not necessary' to provide meanings of objects, I argue that at least in the case of the Pergamon
Museum, this is an unsustainable position. Text that is not provided cannot simply be taken
as an indication for a lack of its necessity. Rather, the Pergamon Museum was always part of
bourgeois, upper class culture, and the refusal to provide sufficient information on exhibited
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items was part of an exclusionary strategy. People with a Gymnasium education were able to
read the monuments, others not. Bourdieu and Darbel's research about museum visitors
(1990) is one of the most graphic accounts about how visitors who have an insufficient level
of education feel in such museums. This same strategy of exclusion turned into a useful politics of resilience against fundamental changes of the larger ideological context.
Today's change of the Pergamon Museum is clearly oriented towards a mass-museum.
There are two reasons for this. Competition with other museum centres, such as the Louvre
or the British Museum, suggests that the Pergamon Museum as a significant element of the
Kulturhauptstadt ought to be overrun by international tourists. Second, dwindling financial
resources from the state force the institution into a more business-like institution.
In my paper, I mentioned that the distinction between pragmatism and purism was
overemphasised for the sake of clarity of argumentation. Any real world museum can be discussed in relation to such ideal types. Crooke argues that any future museum needs to include
pragmatist and purist elements. As long as we work in capitalist economies, I agree with her
assessment. However, the more important question in my view is what share each of these
concepts should have. On a comparative scale, the Louvre remains an instructive example. It
not only has a new entrance in the form of Pei's pyramid, but also the Carrousel du Louvre, a
huge shopping mall underneath the Richelieu wing, accessible directly from the metro
(McTavish 1998). Here, the visitor is first of all conceptualised as a modern consumer of
pizza, hamburgers and body lotions rather than a person in search of cultural entertainment
— not to speak of education, edification or enlightenment. Clearly, some museums, among
them prestigious places of'high culture', go a long way towards pragmatism and commodification.They are truly, as Crooke says, more forum than temple. My characterisation of ideal
types of museological concepts can serve here to evaluate a comparison between the Louvre
and the Pergamon Museum: the Louvre officials display a far more pragmatist attitude than
those of the Pergamon Museum.
Museums for the people and Benjamin's notion of 'aura' I end my reply with a response to
Crooke's comment that 'people have always been at the core of what museums do'. On a
very general level, she may be right. However, as Morris (1988, 17) argued in an important
critique of such ideas, 'people' all too often 'have no necessary defining characteristics —
except an indomitable capacity to 'negotiate' readings The people are also the textually
delegated, allegorical emblem of the critic's own activity'. This is why I spoke about the
'informed' visitors' readings. I cannot claim to speak for 'anybody'. It is always specific groups
that one writes about. Using the term 'the people' comes close to a dangerous hegemonic
attitude on the part of a writer who pretends to represent what he or she only projects.
Furthermore, in the light of such works as Foucault's The archaeology of knowledge (1974),
or Marchand's Down from Olympus (1996), I consider Crooke s assertion about museums as
always centred around people to be a generalisation from a historically specific present.
Clearly, for most of their history, museums were about dominating the human world through
a domination of the object world and nature.
I submit that there is a mistaken humanist position at the basis of a claim that museums
always were, are and will be for people. This contention argues for a strict separation between
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the object world and humans. Walter Benjamin (1968) traced the development of the display
of art and its fate in the 'age of mechanical reproduction' back to its religious roots, maintaining that in many pre-modern social contexts art had a ritual value. This context-dependent quality of art, the 'aura', is described by him as 'distance, however close it may be'
(Benjamin 1968, 222). An atmosphere of awe and unapproachability emanates from such
objects and creates a singular relationship between a person and a work of art.' Benjamin goes
on to say that in modern society, possibilities for the mechanical reproduction of art have
destroyed this peculiar phenomenon and made art more universal and democratic because it
is already produced with a consideration to reproducibility. However, as Duncan shows
(1995), museums are spaces which in some instances continue to require strong ritual behaviour. Here, in the museum-temple, art — or archaeological remains — may sometimes preserve
elements of aura, relations that are today of a highly unusual character.
What steers visitors today in museums to converge on certain objects? Instead of relationships created by the aura inherent to objects, it is the commodity fetishism that predetermines where an audience forms crowds around a particular item. It is precisely those
objects that have the highest market value (the Mona Lisa, the Monets and van Goghs) which
inspire the awe of today's consumer-visitor of museums. However, with the development of
a virtual world, this may change again. As Benjamin (1968, 222) writes so appropriately,'The
manner in which human sense perception is organised, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well'.
Note
In this sense, aura is akin to the Kantian notion of the sublime.
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