Greetings from Berlin III
An object and its agency: the Mshatta Façade
I grew up in Berlin without ever visiting the famous Pergamonmuseum. Even though it was located in East Berlin and I lived in West Berlin, it would have not been too difficult to go there. I just was not aware of the treasures the museum was and is proud to present. How blown away I was when I visited the museum the first time perhaps ten years ago and discovered the beautiful examples of architecture like the Ishtar Gate or the Mshatta Façade.
The Mshatta Façade was presented in depth during the workshop „Making Things Speak“ about which I learned thanks to the Attic. I went to listen to two presentations in the Saturday morning session because they touched my PhD research about exhibition narratives and I was happy to learn by the way more about that fascinating object.
Stefan Weber, director of the Museum of Islamic Art, which is located within the Pergamonmuseum, described the Façade like a person with a biography of its own. According to Weber, its story is partly characterised by amnesia because little is known about the „birth“ or „sisters“ and „brothers“ of the building. The Façade belonged to a palace which was excavated and discovered in Jordan in 1840.
Three aspects I found especially interesting of Weber’s explanations. Firstly, he called the Façade not only an „object“ but also an agent in history as it was i.a. the starting point for German Islamic art history. Secondly, he described how the biography of the Façade and biographies of human beings were entangled. In his presentation Weber could just touch how important the fragment of the palace was for certain persons, among them Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid who gave it as a gift to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. Thirdly, it was fascinating to learn more about the diverse turning points in the Façade’s biography: how it was brought to Berlin in 1903 and reconstructed in a room of the museum which was not ideal at all for the presentation; how it was seriously damaged during the Second World War; that it was repaired and reconstructed again in another room also because research placed it then in another art historical context.
Art historian Eva Troelenberg talked about how the museum makes an object speak and again the Mshatta Façade was the core of her presentation. She stated that in 1903 the Façade riddled the scholars because nobody knew how to date or categorise the object. Despite this nobody doubted that the Façade was an art historical object of high importance. Why so, Troelenberg asked. She argued that this judgement was based on two central criteria: monumentality and ornamentation. Presented to the German public, the Façade was called monstrous and according to Troelenberg concentrating on the rich ornaments of the Façade helped to „tame the monster“. In the beginning of the 20th century, ornaments played a crucial role in the art historical discourse. A general interest in regularities and structures helped to value the Façade even before more information was discovered.
After placing thus the Façade in the art historical discourse, Troelenberg asked provocatively if it would be possible to imagine other reference frames for this extraordinary museum object, and made an inspiring proposal. She showed an old photograph of a house located in a village near the excavation site: one of the typical stone rosettes of the Mshatta Façade had been included above the door of the building. Was that an exception? Why did the owner use that ornament for his house? Who lived there? What did the inhabitants think about the palace? Without being able to answer these questions, Troelenberg proposed not to read this as a case of vandalism, as if the inhabitants had used the palace just as a stone pit, but to think that the builder of the house used the ornament carefully.
What added a certain explosiveness to talking about the Mshatta Façade today, is the fact that the Museum of Islamic Art and the Façade will, in the course of the overall refurbishment of the Museum Island, move to the northern part of the Pergamonmuseum in the next years. Critics propose that the Museum shall better be included in the Humboldt Forum which will be erected nearby, also because the Façade could be presented there with more space. So the intention of the workshop, to „investigate objects and their agency – how they are transformed (or not) by their uses and contexts and how they impact human lives“, will be in the case of the Façade especially interesting also in the future.