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When soft power fails the acid test

Berlin's Pergamon Museum is currently staging an exhibition of treasures from Saudi Arabia. Should museums cooperate with dictatorships? Can the policy of change through rapprochement go too far? By Nicola Kuhn

Archaeological exhibitions at Berlin's Pergamon Museum have had an unprecedentedly successful year. "Tell Halaf" attracted 750,000 visitors, "Pergamon" sold 250,000 tickets in just two months and "Roads of Arabia" opened on January 26th. The more confusing the political conflict situation in the countries of the exhibits' provenance, the more national borders blur in the globalised world and the more uncertain the future future feels, the more visitors look to the past for orientation, revelling in the treasures of fallen cultures.

"Roads of Arabia" - the exhibition that opened in late January in the Museum for Islamic Art in the Pergamon in the presence of His Royal Highness Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities - is proof that this cannot work. It will be a magnificent show, a true visitor magnet: the objects from the Kaaba and the history of Mecca and Medina have never been shown in Germany before. The roads indicated by title refer to the millennia-old trade and pilgrimage routes that brought traders and pilgrims to the Orient during antiquity and the early Islamic period. This spectacular show has already toured the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and Barcelona. According to Arab News over a million people have already visited the exhibition. Ali bin Ibrahim al Shaban, vice president of the Antiquities Commission, estimates that another half million will see it in Berlin.

So a flying carpet is lying in wait in Berlin, and yet it cannot really transport us into the worlds of dreams. A glamourous past and a brutal present, art and politics are not so easily separated. Prince Sultan is the unofficial No. 4 in the hierarchy, topped by the 87-year-old King Abdullah - in a country under Sharia law where women's rights are violated, political opposition suppressed and there is no freedom of press or expression. When Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowerweit travelled to Saudia Arabia a year ago with a business delegation, he was sharply criticised at home. Not long afterwards, as if to validate the warnings, Saudi Arabia dispatched 1,000 troops to Bahrain to nip the uprising there in the bud. And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently announced that the number of people condemned to death in the country had risen sharply in 2011, to 79.

It begs the question of whether it is acceptable to enter into cultural co-operations and hold joint exhibitions with such a country - with dictatorships, authoritarian regimes and rogues states. Stefan Weber, director of the Museum for Islamic Art and host of the "Roads of Arabia" exhibition answers yes. When he was leaned on by the Saudi embassy in an attempt to use the Berlin exhibition as an image campaign, he warded off potential propaganda by consistently emphasizing that the exhibition was about art and science. But one look through the catalogue reveals texts that present the royal house in a distinctly official light. The exhibition itself is an attempt at compromise: it traces the history of the country up to the 1930s, when the new Kingdom of Saudia Arabia was founded.

Stefan Weber defends his project. "If we push everything onto a political level, we've lost before we've even started," he says. He and Michael Eissenhauer, general director of Berlin's State Museums, were part of Wowereit's delegation. At the time Weber not only signed the loan contract with the authorities, he also courted sponsors in Saudi Arabia. The city of Berlin shelled out 820,000 euro for this costly enterprise with help from the lotto funds, but German business refused to get involved. It took Weber a long time to find sponsors, and the exhibition opened much later than planned.

One of his motivations for presenting the Arab treasures is to show support for the fledgling Antiquities Commission, which has been supervising the systematic excavation, safeguarding and documentation of archaeological sites, in particular from the pre-Islamic age. Religious hardliners in the government would rather see these destroyed. As president of the commission, Prince Sultan belongs on the liberal vanguard and holds his hand protectively over the project. The commission's aim is the inclusion of key sites on the Unesco Heritage List – and to open them to tourists.

International archaeological campaigns, scholarly exchange, joint exhibition projects, these are the elements of an intercultural dialogue that ultimately aims to liberalise the country. This at least what the partners in the West hope. As President Hermann Parzinger proudly explains in the foreword to the catalogue, this exhibition is a valuable contribution by the Foundation for Prussian Culture to German cultural foreign policy.

Within the context of the 2011 "Art of Enlightenment" exhibition in Beijing, this policy backfired badly. Culture as "soft power" was given a thorough dressing-down: Ai Weiwei, China's most prominent artist and regime critic described the exhibition on Tiananmen Square as "a form of currying favour". Two days after the opening he was abducted and detained for 3 months, and no information was given as to his whereabouts or the reason for his arrest. A storm of indignation erupted. Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller berated the curators of exhibition for making Kant an accessory of bad state theatre. Solidarity campaigns for Ai Weiwei went hand in hand with demands for the closure of Germany's most expensive exhibition abroad ever, the 10 billion euro bill having been footed by the Foreign Ministry and German business.

The three museum directors from Berlin, Munich and Dresden did what they could to keep damage to a minimum. Klaus Schrenk, director general of the Bavarian State Painting Collection declared truculently that culture had to brave these acid tests: "We have to face them." Michael Eissenhauer admitted that at the start of the planning phase the mood in China had been liberal – but with the Arab rebellions the Chinese regime started to get nervous about protests spreading their way. Only Martin Roth of the State Art Collection in Dresden attacked "these intellectually one-dimensional blinkers when it comes to looking at China and ourselves." Today he is the head of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is helping out his colleague Neil MacGregor at the British Museum, who opened an exhibition in Tehran together with Ahmadinejad.  

Where do you draw the line? How much collaboration is acceptable within a cooperation? When does "change through rapprochement" become jumping through hoops? The exhibition in Bejing will run until the end of March but at 230,000 to date, visitor numbers are far lower than expected. And the Year of Chinese Culture will be launched in Berlin at the end of January with plenty of song and dancing. In a joint letter the three beleaguered museum directors explained that dialogue should not be left to business and politics alone. But if culture is leading the discussion, whether it be with China or Saudi Arabia, the question of freedom weighs all the heavier.


Nicola Kuhn is a lecturer for History of Art at the Freie Universität in Berlin and an art critic for Tagesspiegel

This article was originally published in Tagesspiegel on 23 January 2012.

Translation:lp - let's talk european