Between spring 2016 and 2017 I did ethnographic fieldwork with Multaka, an initiative founded in late 2015, whose members, a group of Syrians and Iraqis, offer guided tours in Arabic twice a week in four centrally located museums in Berlin: the Museum of Islamic Art, the Museum of Ancient Near East, the Bode Museum, and the German Historical Museum. On a January afternoon in 2017 I met with Farah, one of my informants. She is an architect educated in Syria and Germany and works as a Multaka guide in the Museum of Islamic Art. She tells me she decided to give tours in this museum because of her educational background and her experience with restoration in the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus, which was also the subject of her ongoing doctoral research. I met with Farah to conduct a go-along interview (Kusenbach 2003) in the museum, a method that made it possible for me as a non-Arabic speaker to get an insight into the guides’ experiences of their work in the museums and with the visitors, and into the importance of the physical environment where their work usually takes place.
Multaka tour in front of the Ishtar-Gate and an excavation map.
Farah makes her first stop in front of the Ishtar-Gate in the Museum of Ancient Near East. This is a usual stop for her, as she has to pass by the gate on the first floor to reach the Islamic art collection on the second floor of the Pergamon Museum’s southern wing. The 14-meter-tall gate was an entrance to the ancient city of Babylon. Built in the sixth century BC, it was excavated in the early twentieth century by German archaeologists and later brought to Berlin. The excavation site is shown on a map next to the gate in the museum. Farah explains to me how she starts her tour here, and how some visitors react when they enter the museum:
if they are from Iraq (…), first they are very happy, sometimes just to see the map. And then they directly ask how it comes here (…) And sometimes they ask very like concrete question: how is it authorised? You know these questions, it starts to have a big discussion here. (Interview with Farah, 4 January 2017)
According to the Multaka guides, especially those working in the Pergamon Museum, the subject of object provenance, referring to the history of ownership of an object, is what the visitors mainly ask about during the tours. Farah also returns to this several times during our walk, and as we enter the hall with the Mschatta façade in the Museum of Islamic Art, she comments: “when I say it’s a gift, ohh they start to laugh.” The visitors on her tours, she tells me, laugh in a sarcastic way when she tells them this. They make her aware that they do not agree with the story about the desert castle from today’s Jordan and that they find this interpretation quite problematic.
I would like to stop my tour with Farah here, as this incident touches upon some of the central issues observed during my long-term ethnographic fieldwork with Multaka. I would like to reflect on what it would mean to follow the argument of the Mschatta façade as a gift.
Multaka tour in front of the Mschatta façade.
Referring to the façade as a gift from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Abdülhamid II to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II goes back to Wilhelm von Bode, the founder of what would later become the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. The ruins of this Sasanian palace from the 6th Century AC was originally located East of the Dead Sea in the Ottoman Empire. Due to long-term diplomatic negotiations the main parts of the desert castle were cargoed on a railway line, which was completed for this purpose, and shipped to Berlin from the port of Haifa. In 1904 the Islamic department of the Royal Museums in Berlin opened in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (later the Bode Museum), with the Mschatta façade as a centrepiece. With the finalization of the Pergamon museum the façade was moved to its current location in 1932 (Enderlin 1987). Today, the museum still presents the façade as a gift on its website (SMB, n.d.).
The French sociologist Marcel Mauss elaborates on the notion of gift most famously in his essay “The Gift”, which was first published in 1925. Analysing the complexities of gifts and gift-giving in archaic societies, Mauss writes that gifts might at a first glance seem “voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested” (Mauss 1954, 1). Even though one enters into a gift-giving situation voluntarily, Mauss shows how accepting a gift means entering into a relationship with the giver that obliges you to give something in return. And it is only by returning a gift of equal value that the relationship is finalized. Rendering a gift cannot be done immediately, time needs to pass before a return gift can be offered and accepted. Following this logic of gift-giving, repaying becomes a central part of what the Multaka project is about. Multaka was founded to enhance accessibility to museums for Arabic speaking refugees in Berlin after the arrival of refugees from the former Ottoman Empire, mainly Syria and Iraq, in 2015. The guides accompany the visitors from the moment they enter the museums, helping them with the cloakroom, security and ticket control – a great help for people who speak only the Arabic language and are unfamiliar with the subtext of museum visits. Both the entrance to museums and guided tours are complimentary for participants – services that, to my knowledge, far exceed other public engagement projects in the museums involved. But Mauss (1954, 41) also points to the imperative of a “worthy return”, i.e. a return gift of (at least) equivalent value as the one received. This leads me to the laughter of Farah’s visitors.
Disconcerting laughter should not simply be brushed off and quickly replaced by a meaningful explanation. Taking laughter seriously makes it possible to tell more differentiated and more true stories (Verran 1999). The laughter also points to another trade inherited in the gift as Mauss defines it. The gift “carried with it a sense of the inalienable – that is, something which could never really be given away” (Miller 2002, 416), making it clear that people and artefacts are not to be understood in dualistic opposition. To give a gift means giving part of yourself. During my fieldwork I observed that guides referred to the objects in the exhibitions as “ours”, and German visitors referred to them as “theirs” when they talked about the people from Arabic countries. The fact that the façade is not felt as having been consigned completely to the German museum makes the Arab visitors laugh at Farah’s exclamation. When this happens, Farah explains, she lets the visitors express their opinions about the object: some say it has been stolen and that it should be returned to where it was excavated. But she does not enter into a further discussion about the subject of object provenance. Like many other Multaka guides, she argues that this kind of transfer of artefacts belongs to a specific historical context – one in which two monarchs lawfully could hand over archaeological findings according to Fundteilung (partage), a model of collecting and dividing excavation finds especially in the Ottoman Empire.
But during our interview Farah also tells me that there are things she does not tell the visitors, things that could differentiate the story of the Mschatta façade. She has learned through her confrontations with the visitors not to defend the museum and its objects because “then they try to attack me, like I’m the museum authority”. Rather she would avoid conflicts, and while we are still standing in front of the Mschatta façade, she tells me that she does leave out information to avoid such situations. She tells me she knows that the façade was handed over as a work of Byzantine art to the German emperor by the Sultan who was not aware of its relation to Islam. Brining this up “would only be problematic”, she says. This is not about protecting the institution, but for Farah it is about protecting herself and avoiding situations in which she might put herself at risk of being attacked as a representative of the museum and its collection.
Clearly, the guides know some of the problematic stories about the objects in the museums. The director of the Museum of Islamic Art, a central figure in Multaka, makes it clear to me that the team members have been informed about the illegitimate acquisitions and the problematic history of some objects and that they are supposed to pass on this knowledge during their tours. So why does Farah still circumvent the subject, why doesn’t she follow the laughter? She gives the answer herself. “This is the object”, she says still standing in front of the Mschatta façade. Farah explains to me that during the discussions on her tours she would always try to bring the focus back to the object in front of the visitors. On her tours, she keeps close to what can be seen on display, the visible physical object in front of everyone’s eyes. This is a method of the dialogical object interpretation which she has been trained in as part of Multaka. The tours are conceptualized as a dialogue between object and visitor with the guide as a mediator (see Lielich-Wolf and Avenarius 2008). So, when the museums do not offer her the objects to handle these discussions, she will inevitably shy away from the subject that would make her, not the museum, a target of criticism and discussion.
By examining the way in which the museum perceives the façade, i.e. as a gift, and also by taking seriously the laughter during the guided tours, I have reflected on the subject of object provenance in relation to the Multaka tours. Understanding the façade as a gift makes visible the complex attachment that both visitors and the museum have to that object. Also, it points to the uneven relationship established due to the presence of the Mschatta façade in one of Berlin’s museums, which is only partly addressed through the Multaka tours.
Enderlein, Volkmar. 1987. “Die Erwerbung der Fassade von Mschatta,” Forschungen und Berichte 26: 81.
Kusenbach, Margarethe. 2003. “Street Phenomenology: The Go-Along as Ethnographic Research Tool,” Ethnography 4 (3): 455.
Lielich-Wolf, Antje and Avenarius, Gundula. 2008. “Der Dialog als Methode in der Kunstvermittlung,” Standbein Spielbein 80.
Mauss, Marcel. 1954. The Gift. Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Transl. by Ian Cunnison. London: Cohen & West.
Miller, Daniel. 2002. “Artefacts and the Meaning of Things.” In T. Ingold (ed.), Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology, 396-419. London and New York: Routledge.
Verran, Helen. 1999. “Staying True to the Laughter in Nigerian Classrooms,” The Sociological Review 47 (S1): 136-155.
Rikke Gram is a CARMAH member and a master student in the Institute of European Ethnology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Her research focuses on migration and participatory approaches in museums.