27.11.2008Interview with Claus-Peter HaaseArchaeology as a Political IssueFew countries have such a comprehensive knowledge of archaeological treasures from the Islamic world as Germany. Ariana Mirza asked Claus-Peter Haase, director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, about the opportunities and difficulties involved in working with colleagues from Iran, Iraq, or Syria
Despite disputes about archaeological treasures, Claus-Peter Haase, director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, considers co-operation more important than anything else (photo: Stephan Schmidt) In recent years there have been an increasing number of conflicts about the ownership of archaeological discoveries. Have German museums like Berlin's Pergamon Museum been involved in any such conflicts?
Claus-Peter Haase: You really have to put these things in context. These are isolated cases. When compared with the large number of objects that happen to belong to a universal museum, there are actually very few conflicts. Take Turkey, for example. Even though the media is paying great attention to cases involving objects that originated in what was the Ottoman Empire, this debate is more a private initiative than anything else - particularly in Turkey. To date, the Turkish government has only made official contact with state-owned museums in Berlin in a very small number of cases. There have been maybe three or four inquires in total, and none of them were for the Pergamon altar or any of the spectacular objects. In any case there are no direct requests for restitution, only inquiries. We are asked for solid proof of the fact that these objects are in Berlin legally.
In general, how are relations with the countries of the Islamic world? How closely do the Turkish museums work with the Pergamon museum, for example?
Haase: There are expert meetings at all levels. The directors of collections here in Berlin and the historical museums in, say, Istanbul know each other very well and joint projects are organised. For instance, they compare what pieces are in which collections. Findings from excavations conducted at the beginning of the 20th century were officially divided. That meant that the people who initiated the excavations - in this case people in Berlin or German universities - received a specific share of the artefacts discovered, and this share was officially delivered to the Berlin museums. The other half remained in Istanbul and went to the archaeological museum there.
Excavations at the Roman castle Qreiye in Syria: despite political differences, German and Syrian researchers work together on projects organised by the German Archaeological Institute (photo: DAI) This means that there are highly interesting links between the collections and, in this regard, the working relationship between the museums in the two countries is very uncomplicated, from what I hear. We here at the Museum of Islamic Art are currently co-operating with Turkish institutes on the preparation of the exhibition 'The Prussians and the Turks', which is planned for next year. The Topkapi Serail and the Dolmabahçe Serail in Istanbul are our direct partners in this venture. It is very pleasant working with them.
How is the co-operation with Iranian or Iraqi museums working out? Does the political situation influence working relationships?
Haase: In the case of both Iran and Iraq, there are no problems that would hinder the cultural work in any way. Of course Iraq is struggling with the current situation and for technical reasons we were not able to borrow artefacts from the national Museum in Baghdad for the Babylon exhibition [July to October 2008 in the Pergamon Museum – ed.]. The pieces in the Baghdad National Museum are still in high-security storerooms. Moving the objects out of there would be very dangerous.
Moreover, with the exception of very large objects, the collections in Baghdad Museum are not yet complete. Two years ago I visited this museum and saw these large pieces, which had been very well restored after the damage caused by the war. It was very impressive.
The Museum of Islamic Art was reopened in 2001 and has a standing exhibition in the south wing of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin And regarding Iran, there are no conflicts there, either. Although I am of the opinion that this is certainly not a golden age for museums in Iran, we do get offers from the Iranian embassy from time to time. These often relate to very specific Islamic themes that would not be very palatable to our audiences. But we are in touch with the embassy and there have already been a number of joint events in the museum.