Home Arts Berlin museums look at the origins of archaeological collections

Berlin museums look at the origins of archaeological collections

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The Berlin State Museums are launching a systematic investigation into the provenance of state archaeological collections with a view to repatriating illegally excavated or exported objects from their place of origin.

A pilot project involving researchers from Berlin and Turkey will examine the provenance of objects from archaeological sites in Sam’al, Didyma and Samarra that are currently in the collections of three Berlin collections – the Museum of Islamic Art, the Museum of Near Eastern Antiquity and the Classical Antiquities Collection, Berlin museum officials said.

Berlin’s archaeological collection is one of the largest in the world and dates back to the 16th century. “Visitors increasingly want to know where objects come from,” Hermann Parzinger, chairman of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told a news conference in Berlin.

Provenance research has so far focused primarily on potentially Nazi-looted art and colonial-era acquisitions. But research on archaeological objects is “also important in terms of clarifying legal and ethical issues”, says the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in a position paper.

In 19th and early 20th century excavations, permissions granted to foreign teams often involved agreements under which the objects discovered were divided between the visiting archaeologists and the host country. But these agreements have often been circumvented and finds illegally exported, said Christina Haak, deputy director of the Berlin State Museums.

Even where such deals have been observed, some today could be seen as the product of “asymmetric power structures” and therefore exploitable, she said. In addition, museums paid little attention to the provenance of objects acquired on the art market and through donations before the 1970 UNESCO convention banning the illicit trade in cultural heritage, Haak said.

The three archaeological sites whose objects are being studied in the pilot project were in the Ottoman Empire: Sam’al and Didyma are in present-day Turkey, and Samarra is in modern-day Iraq. The museums received research funding of €350,000 from the German Foundation for Lost Art.

“There are no specific return requests, but we have suspected cases” where objects may have been brought from these sites in Germany in violation of permit agreements, said Martin Maischberger, deputy director of the collection of classic antiques.

Working with Turkish researchers will provide access to archives that are currently not accessible to non-Turks, he said. About 8,000 photographs in the Berlin archives could give vital clues to how the discovered objects were handled, Maischberger said.

Berlin museums are also planning an exhibit examining archaeological cooperation between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, he said.

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