27.11.2008Interview with Claus-Peter HaaseArchaeology as a Political Issue
Artefacts from regions stretching from Spain to India are housed in the Museum of Islamic Art. The main focus is on the Near East, including Egypt and Iran. The exhibition shows artefacts from the eighth to the nineteenth centuries Nowadays, what does the law say about archaeological finds?
Haase: As a rule, we can only borrow findings for research purposes. This means that the objects can be analysed here in Berlin, but have to be returned to the country of origin. This has been standard practice in the museum business for several years now. But to be honest, this is not always an advantage in research terms, especially when research conditions in these countries of origin - in Syria, for example - aren't great. They don't have any laboratories where things can be examined, and it is also very time-consuming to arrange a loan for research purposes. On the other hand, the storerooms of the national museums in these countries are, of course, overflowing.
Can you explain this in more detail?
Haase: An important criterion is how the storeroom of a museum is set up. This is an indication of how seriously the collecting and research of objects is taken by the museum. If the room is too full, it is not well enough organized and things aren't being done properly. It doesn't matter who the objects belong to. The main thing is that they are available for research and that what is chosen is aesthetic or so highly interesting from the perspective of the history of a specific culture that it absolutely has to be shown.
You gave Syria as an example. Are the archaeological teams working there today only from Syria or are Germans still involved?
Haase: Yes, Syria is an El Dorado for archaeologists. There are, I think, about one hundred foreign missions in Syria in addition to their own. So there's a lot of research going on in the country. Moreover, doing all the necessary research is very laborious for our Syrian colleagues. They're simply not able to manage. We are constantly offering support, but it's not always easy to make sure they understand that these offers are well-intended assistance and not simply propaganda or arrogance.
You just mentioned collections that are in storage. Are researchers from Islamic countries interested in what is in storage at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin?
Haase: Yes, absolutely. Recently, for example, we had a team of Pakistanis here working on Iranian and Central Asian objects. Several colleagues from Iraq were also here at the invitation of the German Archaeological Institute. We aren't able to invite people ourselves. We don't have a budget for visiting academics. Unfortunately. We really should suggest that this be changed.
However, whenever we hear that colleagues who are interested in our artefacts are in the country, we try to get in touch with them. That usually works. We have long-standing working relationships with many colleagues in Turkey. They know the Islamic Museum extremely well, and in other countries the word is getting around - among other things as a result of a project we organised in conjunction with a large number of experts from the Islamic world. The internet portal 'Discover Islamic Art' makes it possible to go on a virtual journey through the countries of the Islamic world. Up to 3,000 objects and buildings can be viewed and are arranged and described on this site. In addition, it also explains which objects in various museums most probably come from a particular region and puts them in their architectural context. This website is a wonderful joint project that has been realised by ourselves and researchers from Islamic countries.
Interview by Ariana Mirza
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Mý Huê McGowran
Born in 1944, Prof. Dr. Claus-Peter Haase is a scholar of Islam and a professor at the University of Copenhagen. Since 2001 he has been director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin.