Thursday, April 15th, 2021
Stefan Weber, Director, Museum for Islamic Art, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Pulling the Past into the Present: Curating Islamic Art in a Changing World
Demographic and social change presents museums with challenges at various levels. Islam has become a core reference in public discourse, which often also affects, in important ways, views of collective identity and personal political stances. The dominant place of Islam in global debate does not stop at the doors of our museums. The main argument of this presentation is that exhibitions of Islamic art are, whether we like it or not, sites of identity negotiation where relations to ‘me and my world’ are established. Consequentially we could do better to provide visitors with the tools to make the galleries useful to them.
This talk will take a closer look at the concept of culture underlying exhibition spaces and identity formation with regard to ‘Islam.’ In what ways do the social dynamics surrounding the subject of Islam function, and how do these impact museum spaces? What role do museums have in these emerging dynamics? And how do curators respond to the shifting needs of visitors? The classical layout and communication strategies of Islamic art collections were often insufficiently framed to address these layered concerns, despite curators’ knowledge of the rich diversity of Islamicate histories. Thus two main topics will be addressed here: why do we in museums present art, material culture and archaeology of premodern Islamicate societies as detached from transregional and multi-layered networks in closed culturalistic circles, while in research we, hopefully, go beyond these limitations. And why, in exhibitions do we still face enormous challenges in enabling visitors to explore the contents and contexts of our objects through various access points? In many cases we fail institutionally in our efforts to awaken the interest and imaginary power in museum visitors.
During the last few years, different curatorial teams nevertheless have strived to discover better techniques and narratives to convey this timely diversity. The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin hosts one such team, and I will discuss some successful—and some less successful—examples of experimentation on the ground from the past few years.