Barbara Helwing has been director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin since 2019. The archaeologist previously worked at the University of Sydney, where she held the Edwin Cuthbert Hall Chair in Archeology of the Middle East. Martin Maischberger is a classical archaeologist and deputy director of the Antikensammlung in Berlin.
The Humboldt Forum is now open, with free admission. How are your experiences with the new neighbor?
HELWING: The building is new, but the new neighbor isn’t that strange. We work closely with the two large museums that are represented there, the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum. We are of course aware of the great public pressure that our colleagues are currently exposed to. We are moved because we think we should be prepared for something similar in our homes.
A book has just been published that questions whether the treasures from the Ottoman Empire reached the Berlin museums legally. The title is “The Emperor’s Treasure Hunters”. It is claimed that German archaeologists were “on the prowl in the Orient”. That means the Pergamon Altar, the processional street of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate – all stolen? Is provenance research an issue for your houses?
MAISCHBERGER: Provenance research has long been a topic in the antiquities collection, even if it has not been at the fore in external communication so far. We assume that the public debates about the colonial past of the collections, which are currently occupying the colleagues from the non-European collections, will also reach the archaeological collections. We have been researching the provenance of our objects for a long time, because the topic is a burning issue for us. We do this with very few staff. That’s why we’re not as fast as we’d like. But we definitely don’t want to sacrifice thoroughness.
Are there any claims for restitution, as with the Benin bronzes or the Elgin Marbles, which accompanied a long dispute between Athens and London?
MAISCHBERGER: There are no government demands for the return of the Pergamon Altar. There were local initiatives by changing mayors of Bergama, who have already presented this in Berlin. But the Turkish government has not yet reclaimed the Pergamon Altar. In the recent past, however, we have received signals that do not rule out the possibility of claims for restitution. Before that, however, it was important to us to research the history of the excavation and the division of the find and to question it critically. We have already published a lot on this and explained it to the public in the context of exhibitions; The latter can of course be made more detailed.
Do you consider the Pergamon find problematic?
MAISCHBERGER: There is no question that the Pergamon excavation was carried out between 1878 and 1886 in the context of asymmetrical power relations. However, there was no colonial situation. When such terms are used in relation to the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire, we consider it historically incorrect and distorting. By the way, it has been known for a long time that favors were used to obtain excavation licenses, approvals for divisions of finds, etc., that something was tricked every now and then and that the excavation did not, of course, meet today’s criteria of eye level.
And how is that in the collection of the Vorderasiatisches Museum?
HELWING: My collection is a bit younger; it has only officially existed since 1899. Objects have been collected since the middle of the 19th century. I am the museum director here for the third year now. I would not have applied for this position and given up my endowed professorship in Sydney if I had thought that I am sitting here on stolen goods and am only confronted with defending illegal transactions. But on the contrary. I also came here because this museum has the vast majority of its acquisitions from scientific excavations.
Does that mean that things came to Berlin legally?
HELWING: Our focus is today’s Turkey, Syria and Iraq. At that time, found divisions were made according to the respective agreements that were made first with the Ottoman government and later with the protectorates. In addition, there were secret agreements between the German Kaiser and the Sultan in Istanbul. In the case of individual objects that have been purchased elsewhere, a case-by-case check is necessary, and we do that too. Basically, we assume that there are rules and written agreements for everything.
Can it be said that the situation in Babylon is simpler than in Pergamon?
HELWING: There were very clear agreements for Babylon that provided for a division of the finds, initially with the Ottoman state and the second major division of the finds in 1926 Gertrude Bell negotiated with Ernst Walter Andrae. At that time Iraq was not a sovereign state, and of course it wasn’t under the Ottoman Empire either, but the applicable rules were adhered to.
Does that mean a title like “treasure hunter” and “archaeologists on the prowl” is excessive?
HELWING: I think it’s dishonest to use language like that. To suggest to the archaeologists who were employed there that they were only on a rampage, I consider to be honorable and therefore unacceptable.
But as archaeologists in the Empire, they also had certain strict national sentiments. And there was tough international competition.
HELWING: Yes, of course. And we are all aware of that. That is why we want to explore these times as well. In my house there is already a doctoral thesis on the history of the museum up to 1939 and other research companies are running. But something like this takes time, care and personnel. Forces that we don’t have enough.
You were both involved in excavations as archaeologists. Now you are museum directors, similar to your predecessor Ernst Walter Andrae, for example. How is archeology practiced today?
HELWING: I have excavated extensively in several countries. First with German expeditions in Turkey in the area of today’s Ataturk reservoir. All of these finds are in Turkey and all of these places are underwater today. After that I was responsible for the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) in Iran and also participated in excavations there. There, too, all the finds in the country have remained. Only scientific samples are carried out if they cannot be examined on site.
MAISCHBERGER: In Turkey, too, important excavations have been taking place for decades under the aegis of the DAI, in close cooperation with the host country. I dug in Miletus as part of such a cooperation. The cooperation with the Turkish colleagues on site was always based on friendship and mutual respect. The last major divisions in favor of the Antikensammlung took place until 1914.
So finding division is no longer common?
HELWING: The legal rule in all countries today is that the finds remain in the country, with a few exceptions. Up until 2010, Syria carried out divisions in exceptional cases. Sites were flooded as part of infrastructure measures and the construction of dams. The Syrian colleagues asked for foreign help with the rescue ditch, otherwise the objects would have sunk. We carried out objects from such divisions, for example in Habuba Kabira on the Syrian Euphrates. But these are usually only so-called “doubles”.
The collections exist, no new material is added. What does this mean for museum work?
HELWING: What is new is the gain in knowledge. The research is becoming more and more difficult and deals with new topics. In the cultures we work on there were problems that still concern us today. Keyword climate change. Soil salinization was a major problem in ancient Mesopotamia. How did you deal with it? We have cuneiform tablets that provide information about this. We can convey that. Digital means also bring new possibilities. We can interlock our bundles with objects in Zincirli or in the museum in Istanbul, they can be digitally experienced worldwide. In this respect, we are by no means bored just because we no longer add to our collections. We got new tools that we can use to do great things.
So you don’t necessarily need the originals in a museum? That’s an important question when you talk about restitution. Digital copies would be enough?
MAISCHBERGER: Long-term loans are another option. In return for objects that have been restituted to Italy, the Antikensammlung receives long-term loans from that country. The applicable laws limit this to two to four years. But that brings new objects into the houses, at least temporarily. This could also be extended to Greece and Turkey.
HELWING: During the pandemic, we were able to learn how important it is that things are scientifically processed and that science has something to say. And the objects in the museum also have something to say to us. Things have an intrinsic value. One should see the objects for themselves. If you only narrow them down to their origin, you deny them an effectiveness that they actually have within them.
Says someone who has the objects. You can understand when museum people in Africa say we need these pieces precisely because they are part of the cultural heritage.
HELWING: I explicitly don’t want to talk about living cultures in Africa now, that’s a different situation. In the museum we have three Zincirli lions and one more made of plaster. The other lions from Zincirli are in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. So why not exchange information digitally? Then these things can be experienced in two places.
MAISCHBERGER: The phenomenon of the export of works of art from one country to another is ancient. The Romans made use of Greece and brought objects to Rome; Ottoman archaeologists brought ancient works of art from what is now Lebanon to Istanbul. And of course the major European powers brought some finds to their respective capitals during the colonial era. The motivations were certainly not always altruistic. However, to undo all of this would be absurd. Nobody can seriously claim that Greece, Turkey or Iraq have been completely robbed of their cultural heritage by the Central European countries.
What about the reform process in the state museums urgently suggested by the Science Council?
HELWING: If you wanted a team-building measure, then the evaluation by the Science Council was the best thing that could have happened to us. We directors have networked very closely.
MAISCHBERGER: We are debating intensively what new structures might look like in the future. We are in the midst of change.
Birgit Rieger and Rüdiger Schaper asked the questions.