On Common Grounds: Rethinking (Islamic) Heritage in Europe

Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Møhrenstraße 40/41, 10117 Berlin

“On common ground” deals with the myriad of ways in which Islamic beliefs and cultures are entangled with European societies. The intention is to search for ideas and methods that provide opportunities to learn, critically reflect, and get into a dialogue about these entanglements, and their stabilities and instabilities.

The TOPOI-funded event uses the motto of the European Cultural Heritage Year 2018 – Sharing Heritage – as a point of departure to explore the place of “Islam” in discourses about Europe’s heritage, and in heritage-making practices. Starting from an anthropological perspective of heritage as “an active process of assembling a series of objects, places and practices that we choose to hold up as a mirror, associated with a particular set of values that we wish to take with us into the future” (Harrison 2013), we will discuss the motivations and practices that shape and are shaped through these discourses and imagine possibilities for the future.

A World Café is a dialogic format that is intended to facilitate open discussion and link ideas within a larger group in order to trigger the collective intelligence in the room and generate new ideas. Participants are an international group of museum professionals, researchers, activists, and artists who will move between a series of tables where they get into discussions in response to specific themes, concepts or questions chosen and problematised by a group of table hosts.

The focus of these tables is on practices that allow for sketching out future perspectives and ideas. They address the following questions: How to acknowledge differences and diversity through our daily practices? What do democratic spaces look like that inspire people to engage with multiple, sometimes contradictory, perspectives and voices? Are some aspects of Islamic heritage regarded as more difficult to “share”? How can we transcend boundaries and deal with the colonial legacies of Islamic heritage in Europe?


Creating Multivocality

The discussions on this table will revolve around the role of the museum in critically engaging diverse audiences in the creation of a “common” yet “multivocal” perspective on Islamic heritage. In order to do so, we will discuss examples of how Islamic history and heritage have been presented and worked on in museums. How can these representations be challenged in ways that invite visitors to critically engage in discussions around the topics presented in these examples? Departing from Rodey Harrison’s suggestion to understand heritage not as stable, but as the result of negotation processes through which values are attached to material heritage, we invite people to discuss the divisions and categorizations that are being produced through the displays and what understandings of heritage (as completely separated, part of a wider sphere, parts of wider networks) they promote.

Table hosts:
Aisha Deemas became director of executive affairs at the Sharjah Museums Authority (SMA), UAE, in June 2012. She is responsible for long-term planning and overall management of the services provided to all museums under SMA management.
Aisha Deemas’s career at SMA began in 2006 with a two-year curatorial training program following completion of her bachelor’s degree in international studies from the American University of Sharjah. Her training included research, documentation, exhibition layout and design, visitor services, and museum management.
From 2008 she served as curator at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, where she oversaw the museum’s collections, organized exhibitions and events, developed national and international collaborations, and managed the museum’s day-to-day operations.

Miriam Kühn is a curator at the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin. She studied history of Islamic art, art history and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in Bamberg, Paris and Bonn. She completed her dissertation on Mamluk minbars at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich in spring 2017. In her thesis she presents a survey of preserved minbars and an analysis of their endowment and use under Mamluk rule. Miriam Kühn directed the Yousef Jameel digitization project at the Museum für Islamische Kunst between 2012 and 2017. Prior to that she completed a training as curator there. Furthermore she taught Islamic art history at Bamberg University and was research assistant at the German Archaeological Institute.
As curator at the Museum für Islamische Kunst she is in charge of metalwork, glass and textiles as well as the photographic archive. Her main research interests are Mamluk art and material culture as well as sacred art and its social contexts.

Acknowledging difference and diversity

Societies have always been shaped by diversity and differences, and the material cultures of past times offer a myriad of examples to prove this. The question how museums and heritage sites can use their potentials to attract and collaborate with diverse communities, especially those from the margins of society have been discussed for a long time and have gained relevance in the light of increasing anti-Muslim racism in many European countries. Acknowledging difference and diversity, however, does not only mean to attract new audiences, but to critically reflect on an organization’s values, missions, and daily practices. This table offers a space to think critically about how difference and diversity can be tackled in the daily work of museum professionals and researchers.

Table hosts:
Bahareh Sharifi is currently the Program Manager of DIVERSITY ARTS CULTURE – Berliner Projektbüro für Diversitätsentwicklung (Berlin Project Office for Diversity development). She is responsible for developing the Empowerment and Awareness Program, organizing workshops and public events in cooperation with different institutions. From 2016-17, she was the diversity representative for the Berliner Projektfonds Kulturelle Bildung (Berlin Project Fund for Cultural Education) consulting and developing diversity strategies for the funding program. She has been a freelance curator for different cultural institutions such as Kulturprojekte Berlin, Maxim Gorki Theater and the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum Dresden.

Lisa Scheibner works as events manager for Diversity Arts Culture – Berliner Projektbüro für Diversitätsentwicklung (Berlin Project Office for Diversity development) and as a freelance actress. In 2015 she Co-created and -organized the event „Vernetzt euch!“ (2015), a conference on how to enhance intersectional anti-discriminatory expertise in the cultural- and artistic field. She worked as events manager for the festival/conference „Interventionen“ 2016-17 at Kulturprojekte Berlin.

Dealing with conflict

Conflict occurs in all sorts of relationships, between people, groups, or institutions and is shaped in response to a lack of common understanding, poor communication, divergent worldviews or cultural values. This table invites participants to openly address the idea of conflict as it occurs between individuals and groups, and in discourses that focus on so-called ‘Islamic’ heritage in Europe and elsewhere. We will address several themes which relate to the idea of conflict and ‘Islamic heritage’.
When people attach conflicting meanings and uses to the past and these converge at a particular site, museums and heritage sites can operate as highly charged zones of conflict. How have conflicts over the display and interpretation of ‘Islamic’ objects or heritage sites arisen, and how are they addressed? Is conflict necessarily negative? How can conflicts over ‘Islamic’ heritage act as catalysts for change?
In an emergent ‘Islamic heritage’ discourse, a space in which powerful ideas about the relationship between Islam and heritage are constructed, the relationship between Islam and heritage is frequently discussed in terms of conflict or destruction. These constructions contribute both to the stereotyping of a negative ‘Islamic’ attitude to heritage, and the idea that Islam is an inherently destructive religion, which in turn, gives fuel to notions of Islamophobia. How can we address and complicate these constructions of ‘Islamic’ attitudes to the past?
How can museums exacerbate or resolve wider societal conflicts? What role do museums or heritage sites have to play in processes of searching for a ‘common ground’ between individuals and groups?

Table host:
Constance Wyndham is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, studying at the intersection of cultural heritage and post conflict national reconstruction in Afghanistan. Her research looks at the political role of cultural heritage in Afghanistan’s internationally sponsored reconstruction programme. She previously worked as a heritage consultant on several preservation projects in Kabul, Afghanistan, including as registrar on a digitization project of the collection of the National Museum of Afghanistan directed by The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. In 2011, she worked as a curator of the exhibition ‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’ at the British Museum which showed highlights from the collection of Afghanistan’s National Museum. She holds an MA in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

Transcending Boundaries

On the occasion of the founding of the German Islam Conference in 2006, former German Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, said: “Islam is part of Germany and Europe. It is part of our present and our future.”
This statement, uttered by an official representative of the German government, marked an important moment in public debates on questions of belonging, narratives of cultural heritage, and visions for a collective future. Just appointed Minster of Interior Horst Seehofer, has now reversed this statement of his predecessor, pointing out that Islam is not part of Germany, but Muslims are. The ongoing debates sparked by this renewed positioning of Islam within the German landscaped of Us and Them highlights yet again the symbolic prominence of the „Muslim Question“. For the past two decades the topic of Islam — unlike any other — triggered heated and emotionally charged discussions across Europe. More recently national elections in various European countries bore testimony to the effectiveness of generating devision by arranging electoral campaigns around the topic of „Islam“, clearly marking the Muslim body as Other and foreign, while projecting certain images of Self.
This table uses the motto of the European Cultural Heritage Year 2018 — Sharing Heritage — as a point of departure to interrogate notions of „sharing” and „heritage“. Following the approach of critical Europeanisation Studies we will ask what can be learned about Germany and Europe more generally, by looking at it through the lens of Islam. What imaginaries of a past, present and future does the discourse on Islam bring to the fore? How do practices of boundary drawing materialise? Who is being included in discussion of narrating European past, representing its present, and imagining its future? Looking at these questions from a viewpoint informed by post-colonial theory our attention is drawn to global connections that transcend national boundaries and point us towards modes of exchange and struggles of resistance that create spaces of in-betweenness and new forms of subjectivation. The analytical point of departure is to conceptualise neither Islam, nor Europe or Germany, as clear cut, set entities but rather to explore processes of re- and deconstruction.

Table host:
Adela Taleb is a PhD candidate of the Institute for European Ethnology of Humboldt University Berlin. She graduated with a M.A. in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. In her M.A. thesis she worked on visual Orientalism. Prior to her studies at SOAS, she underwent training in the Study of Religions, Political Science and Anthropology at Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU) in Munich. Adela is a member of the doctoral programme “Religion – Knowledge – Discourse”, an initiative launched in 2014 at Humboldt University as part of the German national strategy for excellence in higher education. She is an associate member of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, and was a visiting scholar at the European Institute of the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2015/16. Currently she is based in Belgium at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre of KU Leuven whilst finalising her fieldwork in Brussels. Adela’s research looks at the interaction of Muslim NGOs with high level EU stakeholders and their respective understandings of „Muslim-ness“ and „European-ness“. Hence, it investigates the fashioning of EUropean Muslim subjectivities and describes modes of subversion and instances of contestation.

Negotiating Heritage

Critical heritage studies have pointed to heritage as “an active process of assembling a series of objects, places and practices that we choose to hold up as a mirror, associated with a particular set of values that we wish to take with us into the future” (Harrison 2013). Museums and other heritage sites can thus not be considered neutral spaces, but they reflect specific values, academic traditions, and social and political realities. Acknowledging and accomodating different, and sometimes contradictory interests of various social, ethnic, and religious groups can be a difficult task. This table could invite people to think about the positive and the challenging aspects of these negotiations and how they may be tackled on the ground.

Table hosts:
Cornelia Kleinitz is an Africanist archaeologist who holds a Magister degree in History from Freie Universität Berlin and Master’s and PhD degrees in Archaeology from University College London (UCL). Cornelia is teaching the archaeology of Sudan at the Department of Northeast African Archaeology and Cultural Studies (Institute of Archaeology) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where she is also curating the Sudan Archaeological Collection and Archive. In Sudan, Cornelia is co-running a field project at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Musawwarat es-Sufra, where she is coordinating site management planning and measures with the aim of presenting the site to the Sudanese and global publics. Her work in various projects Sudan and elsewhere in Africa has made her aware of the intricacies of heritage work in different contexts, from the constraints posed by salvage archaeology to the great potential inherent in participatory and engaged approaches to heritage preservation and presentation.

Nasir Al Darmaki has a background in museum work and UAE archaeology as well as community work. Al Darmaki received his Barchelor’s degree in History and Archaeology from the UAE University in Al Ain in 2006 and his Master’s degree (Executive MBA) from the University of Sharjah. He completed the Emirates Foundation Art & Culture Programme’s Museum Studies Foundation course for UAE nationals in collaboration with the John F. Kennedy University, California. As grant recipient for the Cultural Leadership Programme organised by the British Council in 2009, he attended a five week placement in the United Kingdom, training in all areas of museum work at both the British Museum and Tyne & Wear museums in Newcastle. In 2012 and 2013 Nasir Al Darmaki was seconded by Sharjah Museums Department to ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) as project coordinator.


Day 1, 4.5.2018: Introductory session

16.00 Welcome
16.15 – 18.15 Introduction to tables
19.00 Get together

Day 2, 5.5.2018: World Café

9.00 – 9.15 Introduction to World Café
9.15 – 10.00 Discussion round 1
10.10 – 10.55 Discussion round 2
10.55 – 11.15 Coffee break
11.15 – 12.00 Discussion round 3
12.10 – 12.55 Discussion round 4
12.55 – 15.00 Lunch break
15.00 – 16.30 Reflection of table discussions
16.30 – 16.45 Tea break
16.45 – 18.00 Reflection of table discussions

If you are interested to join the world café, please contact Christine Gerbich.

Venue organised by Christine Gerbich, Sharon Macdonald, Susan Kamel, and Gundula Avenarius.