After Experience

by Colin Sterling on 21 April 2020

I first visited Berlin some fifteen years ago, in the autumn of 2005, towards the end of an undergraduate degree in Ancient History and Archaeology. I remember the zoo, the disorderly flea market at Mauerpark, the stark topography of Peter Eisenman’s recently opened memorial, and – perhaps most of all – the Pergamonmuseum, a space unlike any I had encountered up to that point.

Following a well-trodden tourist path, I remember (I think) walking along the Processional Way and stepping through the Ishtar Gate before gazing up at the Pergamon Altar, suddenly surrounded by the classical past in a way that seemed impossible so far from Greece or Rome. I had seen large-scale ruins and artefacts before – both in-situ on holiday in Spain and ex-situ, at the British Museum in London – but nothing that quite captured modernity’s strange compulsion to re-present the past in such blatant terms. Looking back, I think it was this architectural and curatorial bravado that struck me most at the time: the sheer audacity of housing such a monumental structure inside another building, as if the past really could be contained and held in aspic for all time.

Fifteen years is about the average lifespan of a ‘permanent’ exhibition in most museums and galleries. Not so the Pergamonmuseum, which opened in 1930 after significant delays caused by the First World War, the Great Depression and more prosaic debates about the most suitable way to exhibit such vast architectural reconstructions. Now, as part of a widespread masterplan affecting the whole of Berlin’s Museum Island, the Pergamonmuseum is undergoing a comprehensive renovation, with a new entrance pavilion and fourth wing planned for the building. While the Market Gate of Miletus, the Museum of Islamic Art and the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from Babylon are still accessible to visitors, the Hellenistic Hall and Pergamon Altar are currently closed. Tellingly, the building itself – including the room housing the Pergamon Altar – is now also listed as part of the Museum Island UNESCO World Heritage Site, thus preserving the unique experience of viewing this monumental ruin as intended in the original designs by Alfred Messel.

© Colin Sterling

Visitors at the Pergamon Panorama

Visitors at the Pergamon Panorama


In late 2016 the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation announced that the restoration of the Pergamonmuseum would take twice as long as expected, with the museum now due to reopen in its entirety in 2023. In response to this delay, and with financial support from the construction company Wolff Gruppe, a new temporary exhibition building opened in November 2018. Pergamonmuseum: The Panorama displays around 80 of the museum’s most important sculptural works alongside a vast panorama depicting life in Pergamon created by artist Yadegar Asisi. As the website of the Berlin State Museums states:

“The combined presentation of the sculptures from the Pergamon Museum and of the Asisi panorama will enable visitors to feel as if they have stepped back in time and are partaking in life in the ancient city. For a short time only, the Pergamon Altar can be experienced here, in its original architectural context, on the Acropolis.”

Between October 2019 and March 2020 a very different Pergamon experience could be found a short walk from Museum Island, at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art. Here, Istanbul-based artist and musician Cevdet Erek filled the vast space of the main hall with an architectural installation and sound work referencing the form, function and later reception of the Pergamon Altar.

© Colin Sterling

Bergama Stereo by Cevdet Erek. Installation shot at the Hamburger Bahnhof

Bergama Stereo by Cevdet Erek. Installation shot at the Hamburger Bahnhof


Where Asisi’s panorama seeks to transport visitors ‘back in time’, Erek’s soundscape effectively transposed the Altar itself from one medium (stone) to another (sound) whilst maintaining the unique experience of circulating and inhabiting the monument to comprehend its spatial resonance. Taking these two approaches to the ancient world as a critical focus, this short essay asks to what extent such carefully choreographed encounters with the past might unsettle familiar notions of the museum as a space of experience: a crucial question given the radical interpretive and design solutions now being proposed across the heritage sector.

Bergama Stereo takes its name from the contemporary Turkish town that sits in the shadow of the ancient city of Pergamon. In Erek’s installation, the altar is reimagined as a monolithic black stage with built-in speakers creating a multi-dimensional soundscape via 34 separate channels. As the exhibition notes state, sound in this context ‘assumes the central role that visual elements play in the original altar’, producing a fragmentary narrative from Erek’s ‘acoustic frieze’. This fragmentation is also the result of visitors’ movements around the space, which determines how the piece will be perceived: ‘at each place in the hall, the composition will be heard differently: when one approaches the loudspeaker frieze, individual sounds are paramount – the further away from the frieze one moves, the more the sounds overlap and merge into other rhythms’. In this way, the installation invites a meandering, non-linear encounter, with pounding drums, guttural tones and syncopated chimes. There is no single, fully comprehensible Altar on offer here, only a shifting sonic topography that emerges as the visitor moves slowly around the unadorned structure.

Stillness and movement also characterise the Pergamon Panorama experience. As visitors enter the vast circular space, their gaze is drawn upwards, to the 110-metre-long, 360o image – a visual representation of the ancient city of Pergamon in 129CE, under the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Alongside the emperor himself, Pergamon’s inhabitants are depicted going about their daily routines – shopping at the market, attending the theatre, sacrificing animals at the temple, eating, drinking, and conversing in streets and alley ways. While the image itself is static, the scene is lent a peculiar dynamism through the use of sound and light. In a fifteen-minute cycle the viewer is taken from sunrise to the dead of night, from the cacophony of the theatre to the relative peace of the early hours, when domestic fires smoulder across the city.

© Colin Sterling

Visitors at the top of the Pergamon Panorama viewing tower

Visitors at the top of the Pergamon Panorama viewing tower


The experience also changes as you ascend a viewing platform placed at the centre of the panorama. At ground level the figures depicted in the scene are close-up: you almost feel part of the image, able to reach out and join the festivities. At the top, however, the whole cityscape unfolds beneath you, with the Mediterranean just visible on the horizon beyond. Pitched as a form of ‘time travel’, the Pergamon Panorama seeks to immerse visitors in a historical moment that is both grounded in archaeological knowledge production and manifestly the outcome of a particular creative imagination. In this sense, it seems closer to a Hollywood version of the ancient world than a typical museological experience – a reminder of cinema’s roots in the dioramas of the nineteenth century.

What can we learn from these very different approaches to what Sharon Macdonald calls ‘past presencing’ – the various processes through which the past is materialised, felt, experienced and expressed in contemporary life (2013: 79)? On the one hand, Bergama Stereo offers a pared back sonic experience that would not seem out of place in an underground Berlin club; an abstraction of form that radically reinterprets the historical legacy of a particular artefact. On the other, the Pergamon Panorama is unashamedly spectacular, evoking a kind of sublime realism that is at once overwhelming and instantly familiar. While both may be considered creative ‘reimaginings’ of the ancient world, Asisi’s mode of representation is ostensibly more direct, more accessible. It explicitly seeks to illustrate life in Pergamon as a basis for understanding the distant past, thus satisfying the pedagogic principles of the museum. Notably, Erek’s more oblique rendering unsettles this mode of reception, questioning the practice of visiting one altar inside of another, as I did fifteen years ago. As Colin Lang writes in a short essay accompanying the installation, ‘the ritual of the altar and that of the museum have entered into a marriage of sorts, where culture is entombed and simultaneously reanimated by those who come to visit this altar nested in yet another altar’ (2019: 15). With its ‘restless throbbing’ Bergama Stereo suggests instead that ‘the past is far from complete’: ‘The pagan lives on in the purified present, through sound, and most importantly, through the ritual act of listening, hearing through movement’ (ibid: 17).

In the absence of the thing itself – the ancient Altar in all its fragmented grandeur – both Asisi’s panorama and Erek’s installation speak to the primacy of experience in contemporary curatorial practice. And yet they also trouble this narrative, advancing very different modes of experience that engage the body, the senses, performativity and creative media to diverse ends. Experience in such contexts cannot escape a certain correlation of the visitor with the consumer, but – as with all experiential modes of encounter – panorama and soundscape model different forms of ‘future action’ (Jones 2016: 33). They shape and respond to desires that resist attempts to contain and subdue the past in traditional museological frameworks.

The rise of the ‘experience economy’ over the past two decades has had a significant impact on diverse areas of social, cultural and creative life (Pine II and Gilmore 1999). In many ways this extends and amplifies a mode of engagement that has been central to the design of museums and galleries since at least the nineteenth century. Indeed, we might now see these spaces as precursors to a broader experiential turn in modern and later post-industrial society. As Charlotte Klonk maps out in her excellent book Spaces of Experience, museums have always sought to ‘mould experience – the perception, behaviour and aesthetic, sometimes even political, judgement of spectators’ (2009: 11). The design of the Pergamonmuseum in the early twentieth century is a perfect example of this process at work; the fact this space will change little with the current renovation is a sign of the lasting impact of a certain vocabulary of museum architecture on museological practice. As Klonk suggests, the experience that many museums and galleries offer is, ‘with very few exceptions, amazingly standardised and departs little from what established itself in the 1930s’ (2009: 14).

Bergama Stereo and the Pergamon Panorama confront this uniformity in very different ways. Most notably, Erek’s soundscape distances visitors from the classical museum experience by erasing all visual references to the Altar, apart from the basic architectural dimensions of the monument. The silhouette-like form that results from this distillation allows for an embodied encounter without privileging sight over the other senses: a radical departure from most museum experiences. Listening to rather than looking at the Altar we are able to connect disparate elements of past and present: sculptural inscriptions; sacrificial offerings; archaeological investigations; curatorial interpretations. In contrast, Asisi’s panorama is based on a highly specific historical moment (or at least an imagined one). Despite the evocation of movement that the fifteen-minute cycle of the work generates, the panorama is a still image, pieced together through photographs, painting and digital renderings. The primary experience here then is one of an immersive and highly embodied looking: visitors use their bodies to zoom in and out of the scene, picking out details and taking in the whole. While this may be closer to the traditional museum experience than Erek’s sonic installation, there is a stark difference between walking the halls of a gallery and negotiating a single vast representation of those same artefacts in context.

This question of context is vital to our understanding of the different experiential approaches developed by Erek and Asisi. Where Bergama Stereo strips the Altar of any obvious historical reference points to encourage critical reflection on the status of the monument, the Pergamon Panorama locates the structure in space and time as a way of reconnecting past and present through empathetic identification. Crucially, both of these strategies subvert the familiar experience of viewing the Alter in the Pergamonmuseum. Writing on photographer Thomas Struth’s well-known Pergamon Museum series, Brendan Boyle argues that the antiquities in Struth’s images ‘embody a mode of intelligibility and sense-making that are radically, almost entirely, foreign to the visitors’ (2012: 220). This temporal and ontological disjuncture is underlined by Struth’s careful positioning of visitors around the museum; separate from yet absorbed by the relics on display. Bergama Stereo and Asisi’s panorama gesture towards alternative modalities of sense-making. They do not shy away from the radical distance between now and then, but rather highlight specific points of connection, dialogue and intrigue to stimulate other ways of knowing through shared experience. In this sense, they model new futures for the Pergamon Altar and its continued resonance in contemporary society.

As I write these words, in March 2020, thousands of museums, galleries and cultural spaces around the world have been forced to close indefinitely to stop the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing and self-isolation have rapidly become a fact of life for millions of people across the globe. While the economic and political consequences of this new reality are still to be felt, the impact on social and cultural life is already profound. No travel, no theatre, no live music, no sports, no exhibitions. The embodied, performative and above-all social experiences I have described here are simply no longer possible. Above and beyond the economic shock this will cause to the arts and cultural sector, such forced isolation brings home the vital role that museums, galleries, exhibitions and other cultural activities play in bringing people together through shared experiences: critical or otherwise. Such spaces of gathering will be needed more than ever in the weeks and months to come – spaces where we might remember, reconnect, rebuild and reimagine in the wake of this collective planetary dislocation.



Boyle, Brendan. 2012. The World of Michael Fried’s Antiquity. History of Photography 36(2), 211-224.

Jones, Caroline. A. 2016. Modeling. In: C. Jones, R. Uchill and D. Mather (eds). Experience: Culture, Cognition and the Common Sense, 13-33. Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT Press.

Klonk, Charlotte. 2009. Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Lang, Colin. 2019. Downbeat. In: Cevdet Erek, Bergama Stereo. Berlin: Freunde Guter Musik Berlin E.V.

Macdonald, Sharon. 2013. Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe Today. London & New York: Routledge.

Pine II, B. Joseph & Gilmore, James H. 1999. The Experience Economy. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press


Colin Sterling is an AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellow at UCL Institute of Archaeology. His current research explores the potential for new approaches to immersive and experiential design to contribute towards critical heritage thinking and practice. His first book Heritage, Photography, and the Affective Past is now available from Routledge. This research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK).