The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin

On Equal Footing with the West

The cornerstone of the Berlin Museum for Islamic Art was laid exactly a hundred years ago. For its hundredth birthday, Sabine Ripperger spoke with the museum's director, Claus-Peter Haase.

photo: Museum for Islamic Art Berlin
13th-century folding Koran stand from Konya

​​In Germany, Muslims and Muslim life have been a tangible presence only for about the past 40 years, due to the immigration of the so-called guest workers who later made their homes here.

But for 100 years Germany has had a Museum for Islamic Art, housed on the so-called Museum Island in the capital of Berlin.

"Berlin is fortunate to possess one of the world's largest collections of Islamic Art," says museum director Claus-Peter Haase.

"From pieces originating in once-Muslim Andalusia, in Spain, to objects from the Islamic India of the Mogul Period, we have a collection which truly covers all important regions and periods. Here you can learn about Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, Central Asia and Iran – especially, of course, about the great artistic achievements of different periods."

The museum director is proud of the vast collection of Islamic art which has been exhibited in Berlin for 100 years now.

According to him, the Museum for Islamic Art on Berlin's Museum Island is one of the most popular museums of this kind in the world, with around 330,000 visitors each year.

This means that today it continues to live up to the aspirations of museum founder Wilhelm von Bode, who actually met with resistance when he founded the museum 100 years ago.

"A brilliant idea"

"Wilhelm von Bode, the director general of Berlin's museums at the time, hit upon a brilliant idea when he decided to increase public awareness of non-European arts, and especially to place Islamic collection – followed two years later by the East Asian collection – on equal footing with Western art."

"At the time, however, the idea was not appreciated at first. On the contrary, the press was baffled and actually took a hostile attitude toward the idea of learning more about Islamic art. But art history took these magnificent pieces under its wing after all: the big architectural elements of the early Islamic Jordanian palace façade, or the mihrabs – prayer niches from Iran and Konya."

"Berlin actually set the example for art historians to begin classifying Islamic art in the periods and regions that are widely accepted today."

At the beginning of the 20th century, museum founder Wilhelm von Bode's main goal was to show that Islamic art encompasses not just Oriental carpets, but great works of cultural and historical significance and lasting beauty.

The leap into modernity

By contrast, the present director Haase aims to liven up the museum's tradition, for example by showing a modern installation by the Iranian artist Farkhondeh Sharoudi.

The artist, who has lived in Germany since 1990, combines an Ottoman suit of armor with modern military camouflage in her installation, alluding to the present day with a variation on the fears of supposed "Islamic threat" that have become prevalent in the west.

When asked what he considers the most valuable or most important piece in his collection of Islamic Art, Director Claus-Peter Haase replies diplomatically.

A rich collection

"That's hard to say – of course, it depends what the viewer is passionate about. Of course the large-scale objects like the architectural element of the Jordanian palace façade with its infinite variety of motifs and images have a particular value."

"But of course that is also true of the oldest known Islamic-Spanish carpet from the early 14th century and some of the earliest Anatolian carpets."

"And we also have these wonderful illuminated Koran manuscripts from the heyday of the Safavid Dynasty in 16th century Iran. Really all these pieces are equal in value and unique in their own way."

Haase is also proud of Berlin's famous "Aleppo Room" from a Christian Oriental residence in what is now Syria. With its wealth of inscriptions, the director refers to it as an "encyclopedia of the religions and cultures" in urban Ottoman society in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Egyptian family Soliman

For its 100th birthday the museum is presenting a special exhibition which includes objects on loan from other museums. Part of this show is dedicated to the Egyptian Soliman family, which has lived in Germany for generations.

Mohamed Soliman was one of the city's pioneers of film around 1906. His daughter, Hamida Soliman, who is exactly as old as the museum, recently visited the exhibition despite her advanced age, as museum director Haase proudly reports.

"An Egyptian family which has lived in Berlin for five generations: that is our leap into the present, so to speak. We ask ourselves what this family still preserves in terms of Oriental, Egyptian and Muslim identity. The patriarch, Mohamed Soliman, founded a circus and the first picture-palaces in Berlin. It was a family that had great success in business, and still is today."

"The family kept a kind of old 'Oriental niche' in their home," Haase further explains. "And they have given us permission to display the niche – furniture which was made in Egypt but clearly tailored to European tastes. There is Oriental ornamentation, but on the whole the furniture is designed for a European room, making it a splendid fusion of the two cultures. Maybe this also symbolizes what a minority from a foreign culture retains in terms of identity after so many generations."

Sabine Ripperger

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2004

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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