Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Seeing the World: Displaying Foreign Art in Berlin, 1898-1926

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Seeing the World: Displaying Foreign Art in Berlin, 1898-1926

Article excerpt

As the popularity of reality television demonstrates, there is some pleasure in feeling superior to others' mistakes. The examination of museum practice in the nineteenth century, particularly when it relates to the arts of Africa, can inspire similar smugness. By denouncing the racism and xenophobia of our forbearers, we prove the virtue of our own age. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were indeed marked by profound racism and xenophobia, and victory over these pernicious social ills is a critically important goal of the twenty-first century. Yet the motives of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century curators are more complicated than they might first appear, and are not solely related to race. This paper considers the treatment of architectural relief sculpture from present-day Turkey and Nigeria that were accessioned and placed in newly built museums at the turn of the twentieth century. The Pergamon altar and the Benin palace reliefs rank among the masterpieces of the Berlin museum system's collections. Both arrived in Berlin during a period of unprecedented museum growth, when curators and directors struggled to provide a comprehensive view of the world through the limited framework of a museum gallery. Yet the methods of display chosen for these monuments are radically different. The comparison of curators', directors' and architects' goals in housing and displaying these two great world monuments reveals competing approaches to comprehensive exhibitions.1

Why compare the Pergamon and the Benin reliefs at all? The Pergamon reliefs (Figure 1) were part of a Hellenistic altar built on the acropolis at Pergamon (now Bergama) in Western Anatolia during the 2nd century BC. The building dates to the reign of Eumenes II (r. 197-159 B.C.). The structure had an open, colonnaded court on a podium surrounded by the now-famous gigantomachy reliefs. A monumental stairway led to an inner court, which may have been a sacrificial altar. The Telephus frieze, also displayed in Berlin, decorated this inner court.2 Although the fabric of the ancient building was used in newer construction in the area for centuries, it was first formally excavated in the late nineteenth century. German-led excavations resulted in the Pergamon's current location in Berlin. The Benin bronze reliefs (Figure 2), in contrast, date from the early modern period. These reliefs were installed within the audience courtyard of the Oba, or king, of Benin within his palace in Benin City, now within Nigeria. Likely commissioned by King Esigie (r. 1517-1550s) and completed by his son Orhogbua (r. 1550s-1570s), the reliefs encased the square wooden columns supporting a conpluvium roof in an immense courtyard. As a comprehensive decorative program, the relief plaques were likely experienced as a single artwork, similar to the Pergamon friezes. The Benin relief plaques were removed to storage at an unknown point between the 1640s and 1702, and were only infrequently consulted by courtiers after that date. The plaques were brought to Europe by the British as a result of their occupation of Benin City in 1897, and many of them arrived in Germany after their sale at auction in 1898.

The Pergamon and Benin pieces have more in common than it may seem at the outset. Despite their great temporal and geographical distance, from a museum studies perspective they are quite similar. Both are architectural reliefs found with only a general understanding of their original display context; both arrive in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century; both are immediately displayed in new museums upon their arrival; and both are considered as artefacts of foreign lands by their German exhibitors. Yet when the Pergamon reliefs are presented to the public in 1901, they are arranged in a purpose-built museum dedicated to an architectural reconstruction of the entire monument. When this is found insufficiently grand, both by visitors and by Kaiser Wilhelm II, this new museum is torn down and another, more ambitious museum constructed in its place. …

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