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Staging with Artefacts – Production of History on the Museum Island in Berlin, Part 1

by [Artefakte // anti-humboldt]
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

The Exhibition “The Salvaged Gods from the Palace of Tell Halaf / The Tell Halaf Adventure” (01/28 – 08/14/2011)–An Audio Tour with Two Voices

Artefakte//anti-humboldt (text and images)

Voice 1: In the anteroom, an appetizer in front of the exhibition title, “A Zero Hour?”, a pedestal, expansive, like a stage, an artefact–rubble on a pallet. The pedestal was not leaf gilded, upon closer examination, was painted with a layer of colour reminiscent of leaf gold.

Voice 2: Already at the start of the exhibition, the section titles, “-1946”, “Rescue of the Gods” and “Max Freiherr von” (the archaeologist), visible in the suite of rooms made the impression of a way of the cross, we read its stations: “Max Oppenheim”–“Tell Halaf Museum”–“Destruction”–“Restoration”–“Palace of Kapara” …

Voice 1: Climax!

Voice 2: “Desert”–“Cult Room”–“Graves and Vaults”–“Excavation”–“Fascination Orient”–“Syrian-German Cooperation”.

Voice 1: The restoration was a “rescue”. This “rescue” of the artefacts (called “gods”) coincided with the rescue of Oppenheim’s biography, it was redemption, “divine compensation” to the archaeologist who was once himself active in the rescue, “on site ahead of the stone thieves of the modern city”. “We (Oppenheim and colleagues) were not insentient to what it means to tear the remains of a great monument away from its mother soil and bring them to us, where we can never again offer them the light and the environment into which they were created and in which they once came to full effect. But we have wrested them from complete destruction”.[1]

Voice 2: Oppenheim was an “archaeologist and diplomat”, “friend of the Arabs”, “German Lawrence from Arabia”, “el barón”, a collector, preserver, curator, we learn… and further: during the course of the construction of the Baghdad Railway, Oppenheim in 1899 undertook a successful three-day trial excavation at the Tell Halaf in the source region of the Khabur River in Syria. Due to lacking excavation license, he closed the site of the find.

Voice 1: Excavating without a license?

Voice 2: A main excavation then took place from 1911-1913, and only after the third excavation in 1927 did Oppenheim conclude the search with a division of the finds with the French-Syrian mandatory administration and the production of forms of most of the pictorial works for subsequent casting. After Oppenheim could not reach an agreement with the Pergamon Museum regarding an expense allowance, he in 1930 installed his own private Tell Halaf museum in a machine factory in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

In November 1943 this museum was hit by an aerial bomb. All the limestone orthostats and plaster casts disintegrated in the flames, while the heated pictorial works made of basalt burst when they came in contact with the cold extinguishing water. Despite the difficult circumstances, the Pergamon Museum in August of 1944 had nine truckloads secured in its own pipe basement.

Voice 1: Nine months later?–?

Voice 2: “An excavation in the own building” is how the Pergamon Museum described it in the 1990s…

Voice 1: …there would be many others…

Voice 2: Restoration took place between 2001 and 2007, financed by the Sal. Oppenheim-Foundation of the bank Sal. Oppenheim jr. & Cie. and the Alfred von Oppenheim Foundation.

Voice 1: The saviours of Oppenheim’s biography ;)

Voice 2: In the summer of 2005, the grandnephew Christopher von Oppenheim of the bank Sal. Oppenheim jr. & Cie. installed a Musée Imaginaire for a few days in the restoration hall Friedrichshagen for a circle of clients who were invited to dinner there.

Voice 1: …and to whom do the figures now belong?

Voice 2: In the next three rooms we found a kind of imagined machine street: The first station, the replication of the Tell Halaf Museum in a former foundry of the Freund’sche Machine Factory with its oil-soaked wooden boardwalk…

Voice 1: …that’s why it burnt so well on November 23rd, 1943…

Voice 2: …sure, an industrial zone, the most endangered location. Why hadn’t the artefacts been secured in the way that the Pergamon Museum had evacuated its stocks? It was the most secure for an artefact to be buried deep in sand, the most insecure place, however, turned out to be Berlin.

Voice 1: Second station: Violence of immersion, in the artefact, with the artefact, we suffered. In a druse, a crystalline wall structure, we died together with the stone.

Voice 2: At the time, the archaeologist showed irony: “The magnificent, in part gigantic stone sculptures of the Tell Halaf Museum only burst due to the fire and will be, God willing, reassembled again, just like I have reconstructed them again in Berlin, after they had been destroyed 3000 years ago (…) for the first time during the fire of the castle on Tell Halaf.”[2]

Voice 1: Third station: “300 wooden pallets” with “27,000 or 80 m³ basalt fragments”–this restoration street was extended to infinity through a mirroring effect, ending in a resurrected torso assembled out of splinters.

Voice 2: We heard of an “enormous restoration project” defying “two world wars” (Christopher Freiherr von Oppenheim), a restoration as a “human challenge”, a restoration as a “moral obligation”, then as a “triumph” (Nadja Cholidis, curator of the exhibition), as a “miracle” (Hermann Parzinger, President of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz).

Voice 1: We got to know the restoration of the ruins as a rebirth that helped the phoenix out of the ashes. As permanent repetition–guilt/destruction and rebirth–this topos was to be firmly anchored in the Museum Island. As the Berliner piece of evidence of having coped with the war, enormous, human, moral obligation, triumph, the metaphor of which could be brought to the world as a cultural export article. (What also resonated under the surface was the rescue by a private investment against the endless moratorium, the stagnation of the Museum Island under the GDR.)

Voice 2: The climax: In the Palace of Kapara we encountered “the entire family”, partially damaged, partially repaired, partially unscathed bodies from the museum in Aleppo. One wall was painted golden like the pedestal and illuminated from below.

Voice 1: Why was a Byzantine golden ground here? Why was the “Palace” station situated after “Bombing and Restoration” and not at the beginning of the itinerary?

Voice 2: The artefacts: The relief panel of a lion in front of the entrance to the western palace, made of nine hundred fragments. We followed a competition between the percentages of two different materials in the objects, namely, the complements (by the restorers) in the plane surfaces against the incorporated original materials. Either the artefact remained in a ruined state or the complementation dominated, placing the original particles as inlays in the surface. Present-day restoration would restrain from complementing missing parts.

Voice 1: This form was new!

Voice 2: From a restorative perspective, they would not have been built up.

Voice 2: End: In a glass transverse edifice, which connects the northern and southern wings of the Pergamon Museum, the entrance facade of the western palace of Tell Halaf is to form the new access to the Museum of Ancient Near Eastern Art: “By means of a special lighting concept, the original magnificence of the monumental statues and relief slabs is to be brought to bear – without concealing their scars and wounds.” “The visitor strides past the Kalabsha Gate, the entrance facade of Tell Halaf, the Procession Way of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus and the Pergamon Altar in sequence.”[3]

Translated from German by Karl Hoffmann


1. Alexander Conze, cited in Kunze, Kästner: Antikensammlung II, p. 30. [↑]

2. Quoted from Nicola Kuhn, “Museum für Vorderasiatische Kunst. Und der Greif hebt seine Schwingen”, Tagesspiegel, 01/26/2011. [↑]

3.  Nicola Kuhn, “Museum für Vorderasiatische Kunst. Und der Greif hebt seine Schwingen”, Tagesspiegel, 01/26/2011. [↑]


Artefakte//anti-humboldt is a Berlin based group of artists and scholars - Lotte Arndt (until 2009), Brigitta Kuster, Regina Sarreiter, Dierk Schmidt, Elsa de Seynes - that was founded in 2008 as part of the event Der Anti- Humboldt ( against the re-construction of the Prussian castle and the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin. Artefakte//anti-humboldt pursues its questioning of the ethnographic museums by organizing a workshop on restitution (2008), a lecture and a debate with Françoise Vergès on the “Museum of the present” (2009), an open-air film lecture with mummy films held at the construction site of the to-be-built castle in Berlin (2010) as well as at the musée du Quai Branly invited by bétonsalon in Paris (2011). The lecture formes the basis for the installation “‘Rise for you will not perish’ (on mummymania)” showcased at the exhibition Animism at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2012. Artefakte is currently working on the project “Künstliche Tatsachen/Artificial Fact” in collaboration with the Kunsthaus Dresden (Germany), and partners in South Africa and Benin.
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