A quick reflection on Berlin: the Bode Museum

While I puppy-sat with Freddie and worked on a writing commission, Berlin’s vibrant cultural scene provided the break I needed from over-eating and not walking enough in Puglia.

The Museuminsel

A good deal of Berlin’s museums are neatly concentrated on the Museum Island, which seems to be typical of Austro-Prussian imperial designs (I visited the Museum Quarter in Vienna in August, for example, similar in layout if not in concept or design).

The effect of the layout and proportions of the architecture on Museum Island is as awe-inspiring as no doubt was intended, and there is an overwhelming sense of reverence towards the material culture of the past even before entering the monumental doors of the museums.

It was hard not to connect this decadent imperial austerity to Berlin’s glaring twentieth-century past, etched as it is into the fabric of the buildings housing the artefacts, and into the narratives of collection and display.

‘Beyond Compare’ at the Bode

The Bode Museum was hosting the fantastic temporary exhibition ‘Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum’. Objects from Africa were placed somehow in physical juxtaposition to the more familiar, most often Christian, European objects which make up the Bode collection.

This occurred seemingly at random throughout the entire museum, so that the visitor is suddenly confronted with this unusual pairing, and invited to reflect on differences and similarities, connections and common themes in the cultures which had produced each object.

Themes like beauty, race, power, devotion, protection, life and death were evoked, for example, through a fourth-century marble head of a Roman emperor from Turkey, placed next to a seventeenth-century commemorative wooden head of a king from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria.

 

These two figures in particular both challenge our modern concepts of gender, as the beautifully chiselled and carved features of the emperor and king stare ahead with an androgynous quality: I, for one, had mistaken both for female figures as I approached them. At the same time we are confronted with the gentle, easy grace of the Roman emperor, versus the stern pride of the Nigerian king, two different approaches to lordship, power, and protection.

The curators explain:

The implicit process of comparing, separating, and assigning objects to different collections was a fundamental step in the foundation of the Berlin museums and the definition of their respective missions. In the process many objects from Africa were defined as ethnological artefacts, while other objects of comparable artistry from European ritual contexts remained in art museums.

The act of comparing and identifying is therefore not neutral, but charged with socially defined prejudices, conventions, and constructions of history. It [is] also governed by the experiences of the individuals who draw the comparisons. Defining two things as similar or different is often related to power. The process of comparison is thus closely tied to questions of collection history, aesthetics, colonialism, and gender.

This direct attempt at deconstructing and decolonising the museum’s collection through the simplest of solutions is an important initiative which serves to challenge the collection’s traditional objectives and engage the visitor in a thought-provoking exercise.

Public Engagement

One small criticism I am tempted to make is that while the exhibition asks these important questions, any subsequent questions or answers the visitor might have sort of fizzle away into nothingness, as there is no obvious space or tool to continue to engage meaningfully in that conversation.

Visiting the website, I learned that the exhibition is complemented by a series of themed guided tours and a round table discussion which involves curators from Berlin, New York, Cleveland, and Cape Town. These would certainly all be very interesting to attend, but unfortunately I did not stick around long enough.

My recently Berlinified friend Sophie and I agreed that it  would be great to see this as a travelling exhibition, perhaps applied to other traditional collections, as it really breathes new life among dusty old walls!

A three-day pass (€29, otherwise around €12 per entrance) allowed me to pick a few of Berlin’s museums to visit: the Bode, the Pergamon, and the Neue. My favourite by far was the temporary exhibition at the Bode.

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