Berlin is known for its abundance of museums and exhibitions. Museum Island is home to an assortment of art from different time periods and new modern and experimental art installations are constantly popping up around the city. Art plays an integral role in shaping Berlin’s reputation. The East Side Gallery showcases work from a wide range of artists making political statements through their murals. Graffiti covers buildings all over the city, demonstrating that the rebellious nature that Berlin is known for is here to stay. Every day is an immersion into visual culture and creativity.
I am taking a course entitled Ancient Art in Berlin: Discovering the Collections of Museum Island this semester, so visiting art exhibitions and museums has become a regular part of my weekly routine and class schedule. My favorite artworks we have studied thus far are those depicting ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Growing up reading the Percy Jackson series, I have always been interested in Greek mythology. I love how rooted it is in storytelling. The idea of ‘history’ becomes fluid and we must rely on legends and myths. In the Altes Museum on Museum Island, there is a vast collection of busts, statues, painted vases and drinking vessels, and wall reliefs depicting the gods and the stories that define them. The abundance of art is amazing and my class provides an opportunity to learn about the history of objects while looking right at them.
Despite the enjoyment my classmates and I all derive from the accessibility of Berlin’s Museum Island and it’s assortment of collections, we have also spent time learning about the ethics surrounding the acquisition of these ancient objects. There is a long history of colonialism that has allowed for Berlin’s museums to become some of the best in the world. European excavators had no mercy in their taking of these objects from site digs in foreign countries. One example is the acquisition of the head of Nefertiti — a German archaeologist took it from Egypt without the Egyptians’ knowledge. The archaeologist was not found out until years later and refused to return the head when historians in Egypt demanded it. This beautifully-made object is still in display on Museum Island.
As we discuss this unethical history of repurposing ancient cultures for the convenience of viewing in museums close to home, I am beginning to approach ancient art from a new perspective. Every object has a rich history that is often overlooked. These instances of the unethical displaying of historical art is sharply contrasted to the completely individualistic art that covers Berlin. Artists — both young and old from diverse backgrounds with different stories — reimagine the city. Recognizing this distinction between Berlin’s contrasting art scenes has been a large component of my time here. I am eager to continue immersing myself in both of these worlds so that I am able to both critique the problematic display practices of many museums holding ancient objects and appreciate the beauty and energy brought by artists who create responsibly and ambitiously.