Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.31

Can Bilsel, Antiquity on Display: Regimes of the Authentic in Berlin's Pergamon Museum. Classical Presences.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xvii, 281; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780199570553.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Andrea Guzzetti, Bryn Mawr College (


At a time when museums are more and more often analyzed and interpreted as bearers of specific messages, publications about them begin to take up the appearance of museum exhibits. This is the case with the work under review, whose structure could easily be projected on a plan: the main body of the book can be said to consist of a central axis focused on architectural history (chapters 1, 3, and 5) flanked by two galleries, the parallelism of which is even suggested in their titles, dedicated to the history of excavation and presentation of specific monuments (chapters 2 and 4).

As Bilsel declares, the purpose of the work is to provide “a critical biography of the objects and spaces located in four adjacent galleries of the Pergamon Museum” (p. 21). The study of the formation of the various galleries serves as a springboard to examine the history of the Pergamon Museum and of its antecedents, the architectural and museological attitudes that inspired their establishment, and some of the personalities who embodied such attitudes most forcefully. The primary goal of the book is to show not only that the most impressive reconstructions in the Pergamon Museum are all hypothetical and do not reproduce the actual appearance of each monument at any point in time, but also that they bear witness to the development of the concept of “authenticity” during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

In the Introduction, readers are first of all given a tour of the Pergamon Room in a descriptive style whose illuminating potential is still seldom recognized in studies on archaeological museums. Bilsel describes what visitors see as they enter the room and the different paths they can follow while they are in it before providing any kind of historical or archaeological background to the exhibit. He then slowly broadens the perspective, using other features of the display to anticipate the main themes of the book. Why ask whether the Great Altar is “authentic” when the installation includes both ancient sculptural fragments and plaster casts of the same pieces? Where does the monument end, be it the Great Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, or the Ishtar Gate, and where does the architectural frame of the museum begin, provided that such a boundary exists? After presenting the arrangement of the book, Bilsel explains his theoretical approach, grounded in post-Orientalist critique and in the conviction that reading archaeological displays as straightforward expressions of Western hegemony is too simplistic and that such displays tend to assume different meanings for different audiences, no matter what intentions inspired them. Such a departure from the usual radical opposition between an active, appropriating side and a passive, appropriated one is very refreshing.

Chapter 1 (“No Place like Greece”) deals with the formation of the setting of the future Pergamon Museum, Berlin's Museum Island, and the erection of the earliest structures on it, the Altes and the Neues Museums. Through an analysis of A View of Greece in Its Prime (1824-1825), a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the designer of the Altes Museum, Bilsel discusses how the inclusion of Greece in the construction of an aesthetic ideal became increasingly problematic as the country became more accessible to learned travelers, who could see and, more importantly, measure the ancient monuments and bring ancient remains back to their own countries of origin.

Chapter 2 (“Reconstructing Pergamon”) is dedicated to the centerpiece of the present museum, the relief slabs unearthed by Carl Humann, the reactions to their discovery and arrival in Berlin, and their initial presentation. As Bilsel shows, the modern history of the reliefs, which begins as a typically romantic encounter with ancient Greece on the part of the “hero-aesthete” Humann, was rendered more complicated by their belonging to the Hellenistic period, which made them difficult to place within the familiar categories of ancient Greek art. The debate on the character of the sculptures involved many prominent archaeologists and art historians (Conze, Burckhardt, Wölfflin) and influenced their first unveiling to the public. Adolf Hildebrand's book Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst (1901) is examined in detail as an example of the difficulties encountered by theorists in conceptualizing the relationship between the reliefs and their architectural frame, whether ancient or modern.

After looking at the contents of the future Pergamon Museum, in Chapter 3 (“A Museum for the Empire”) Bilsel goes on to examine the container, the building designed in 1907 by Alfred Messel to replace the first structure erected to house the Pergamon reliefs. As in the previous chapter, the discussion centers on well-known personalities such as Messel and Wilhelm von Bode, but it also pays attention to an influential outsider, Julius Langbehn, who advocated a return to the spiritual roots of the German Volk as the only way to save the country from decline. Through Langbehn, a sharp critic of the German cultural establishment who nevertheless found favor with many of its members, Bilsel illuminates the complex relationship between rising nationalist tendencies and the need to cater to a cosmopolitan audience.

Chapter 4 (“Reconstructing Babylon”) deals with the second major exhibit of the present museum and introduces us to yet another group of prominent German intellectuals, including Friedrich Delitzsch, Robert Koldewey and Walter Andrae. Here the focus is on the problem of providing the public with a unified and meaningful display when the material is incomplete or fragmentary. The curators' decisions were conditioned by the use of ancient Near Eastern art to support arguments in aesthetic and political discussions, as if its remains provided an unequivocal knowledge of it, on the one hand, and by the perceived absence of “an” Ishtar Gate and “a” Processional Way of Babylon that could be put together exactly as they were, on the other hand. The Near Eastern section of the Pergamon Museum reflects this ambiguity in its claims to reality. The observations on Andrae's choices in reconstructing the Processional Way (p. 179-182) are particularly intriguing, and the title of the section (“The Lion of Babylon in the Age of the Work of Art”) is brilliant. The description of the process, however, is somewhat unclear. If the provenience of the fragments did not matter in the first place, why was it used as a means of classification? Was an initial attempt made to reconstruct the lions as they actually were and then abandoned because it was not worth the effort, since all the figures looked very like one another? Was it possible to retrieve the provenience of each fragment even after they had been re-classified by type?

In Chapter 5 (“Architecture in the Museum”) the abandonment of the “style rooms” championed by von Bode in favor of a closer relationship between the ancient remains and the architectural frame of the museum is documented. The result was the “museum of ancient architecture,” designed by Ludwig Hoffmann, but based on Theodor Wiegand's vision. Recounting the circumstances which led to the arrival in Berlin of the last great component of the Pergamon Museum, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the opposition Wiegand faced in the so-called “Berlin's Museum War,” Bilsel discusses how he devised a new museum for a new type of mass audience, where the experience of the monument as a living unit took precedence over an accurate philological reconstruction.

The book ends with an Epilogue, in which the history of the Pergamon Museum is viewed within the larger problem of defining authenticity. Here Bilsel summarizes the process through which the museum (or the archaeological site) becomes the stage on which the essence of the past is supposedly brought to light and shared with a contemporary audience, but also the treacherous ground where the ambiguity of such claims is most likely to be exposed. This phenomenon can be noticed most clearly when such places experience radical changes, for example when the Athenian Acropolis was “cleansed” in the nineteenth century or when the Altar Room itself was damaged during World War II.

Throughout the book, the vicissitudes of the Pergamon reliefs and of the other ancient remains housed on the Museum Island are used to open a window on the development of the Berlin museums and on the role of museums in Germany in general. The starting point of each chapter is always architecture, and the sections dedicated to its history and theory are the clearest and smoothest ones. From there the discussion moves to a broader examinations of the relevant protagonists of German culture. The book contains many portraits of personalities which shaped the story of the Pergamon Museum and of its exhibits in various ways. Some of them, such as Hildebrand or Langbehn, are likely to be known to a limited number of specialists, and Bilsel does readers an excellent service by bringing them under the spotlight. The treatment of individual actors, however, is sometimes so wide that “visitors” could feel lost.

A second observation concerns the benefit of examining the history of the Pergamon reliefs from an “Eastern” perspective. From the Introduction and from Chapter 1, the reader is led to expect that some space will be devoted to the perception of the reliefs in the Ottoman Empire and in modern Turkey. In the following chapters, however, the focus is kept firmly on Berlin. The choice to limit the perspective is understandable, since it reduces the risk of losing track of the main argument. One hopes, however, that future research by Bilsel or others will make clearer not only that the “Orient” was there before the West “discovered” it and had its own way to relate to ancient remains, but also, and more importantly, that at least some Westerners were aware of such alternative perceptions.

The editing is generally good, with only a handful of missing words, typos, and incorrect spellings, mostly proper names. In the bibliography, multiple works by a single author are listed by title, not by date. I do not know if this is the official policy for the series, but I find this choice a bit confusing.

To conclude, I would like to highlight a peculiarity that provides a striking visual correspondent to the argument put forward by the author. The book includes 101 figures, not counting the color plates. Figure 2, preceded only by a plan of the Pergamon Museum, shows the Pergamon Room empty, with an unobstructed view of the monument. The last figure in the book, Figure 6 in the Epilogue, shows the room full of visitors, most of whom are seated on the steps of the staircase. Between the two extremes, placed on page 120, roughly at midpoint in the book, is Figure 2.14, which is number 51 in the overall count. The image is a reproduction of a photograph published in 1903, which shows the Great Altar as reconstructed in the first Pergamon Museum. The background of the photograph is whited out, as it was in the original publication, according to Bilsel, so that the reconstructed monument seems to float in a vacuum. Which image comes most readily to mind when one thinks about authenticity?

To readers with a background in classics or archaeology, these three pictures are also reminders of the importance of the context in which ancient art and architecture are presented and experienced today. Such images, and the argument which underlies them, make it a useful and timely case study of how the excavation and publication of ancient remains is only the beginning of a new phase of their lives.

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