Collecting and Empires
Roundtable Transcription by Bethany Hucks, MA Program in Museum Studies
Edhem Eldem: I will start, as Ebba did, by saying that I’m not Krzysztof Pomian, because he was supposed to chair this and to moderate this session, and because he couldn’t come they had to use me. I’m not an art historian. I’m not a curator. I’m a historian, so that’s probably why I was selected. The idea is to talk about some of the issues that were raised here. And I can think of quite a number of issues, just looking at some of the participants. From bio-politics to imperial glory, from bad taste to curatorial practices, and I’m really obsessed about one thing. I mean, there’s not a single curator here, and God knows we’ve criticized them on everything they have done, are doing, and will do in the future. It seems rather unfair, I suppose. It would have been nice to invite Tim Stanley and to have a reaction of a curator, because sometimes we are in a position that is extremely comfortable. Criticizing without having to propose an alternative. So that is one of the issues, I suppose. But I think we can just start by tentatively asking Zainab, because she started the whole convegno, and brought up some important concepts.
Zainab Bahrani: I can just go over some of the main points that I think came up in the last couple of days. I jotted down a few notes. In the very first day I tried to make the argument that, beside the historiography of collecting and histories of collecting and the study of the collection as an entity, I would like to try to push the discussion in the direction of considering the relationship of the collection of things and the dislocation of people and human beings, and the entangled relationship between people and objects, so that we might think more in terms of a bio-politics of collecting, or of collecting practices during imperial, especially in colonial projects, as being forms of bio-political control or dislocation or movement. So along with that, and moving on to other people’s arguments and points, I think the notion of ‘saving’ works has come up several times. So how does that notion of ‘saving’ the monument or ‘saving’ the work of art play into these larger discussions of collecting works of antiquities? And then, one aspect that we didn’t discuss, but I would like to speak about more is the notion of, besides just ‘saving’ a monument, an entire building, or a work through collecting, is the idea of giving the work as a diplomatic gift. And one issue that we didn’t discuss, is that sometimes entire buildings or sites can be given as a diplomatic gift. And I think Eva (Eva Troelenberg) mentioned this earlier today, but I would like to add to that the entirety of the archaeological site of Ashur was given as a gift to Kaiser Wilhelm. So not just buildings, but sometimes entire archaeological sites can be given as a diplomatic gift. So how can we understand such a gesture? The other point that came up which I thought was very interesting was something that Caroline (Caroline Vout) brought up, which is collecting as a kind of a self-fashioning, or even a kind of a posturing. A self-fashioning that can be gendered, or class-based, or maybe an interaction between the two. So this is something that we can discuss in more detail or take further as well. And I think that the self-fashioning can be, perhaps, something that we can think about at the level of the royal family or the monarch or the display of royal authority, but also, from what we heard from Ruth’s (Ruth Phillips) lecture on the Swiss cottage is that it can be used as a form of indoctrination even for small children. For small royal children in the case of the Swiss cottage. So these become kinds of signs or markers of empire. These issues of collecting and gifting and exchange I think can become signs or markers of empire and imperial power, or declaration of this kind of power. But I think often we’ve talked about collecting in a sort of a celebratory way, as if the idea of collecting is more progressive or more sophisticated than cultures that don’t collect. So what is this kind of value judgment that we have brought into such a discussion? Of course, the historiography of collecting and colonialism and imperialism is the basic question that needs to be spoken of more directly, and the larger issue that perhaps we need to theorize more clearly is what we mean by all of these activities. We’ve heard so many interesting case studies, but I think we can do better with some theorizing about collecting. And that takes us back to Ruth’s final comment today, which was that we have somehow become disenfranchised in all of these discussions about museums, and the contemporary museums that are emerging, and museum displays because, in some sense, we have abdicated responsibility. And as scholars and intellectuals and museum specialists, we perhaps have to take more responsibility for that discourse. So these are just some points to begin with.
Edhem Eldem: I would like to add a couple of things to what you said. First of all, when you talk about gifts, not all gifts are given. Some are taken. And I wouldn’t call the Kaiser Wilhelm case really a gift. It is some kind of an appropriation because of a diplomatic relationship where the giver is not really completely free. So I think that gifts are kind of poisonous. Violence is the word that wasn’t used, and when you talk about the appropriation of — and collecting, it can be a very violent action, and violence is, I think, a concept that we need to address. I would add to ‘self-fashioning’, that self-fashioning is something viewed from the perspective of the individual who tries to do that. We’ve talked much less of audiences. It’s much more difficult to really measure the impact of self-fashioning. I always use the image of Abdul Hamid’s famous photograph albums, which nobody has seen. So what does it mean to make a collection and not having an audience, and not having that kind of an impact? And finally, to ‘collecting’ I would add other verbs, other terms that are different, but then again linked. Preserving, and displaying. Not every collection is about collecting, it is also about preserving, recycling, and then displaying. And especially in the 19th century, most of what is being done apart from archaeology is really the recycling and the displaying of things that are existing already. It’s the attic that somebody kind of starts to publicly display. So that again goes in the direction of this questioning of the audiences which is one of the most problematic issues.
Gerhard Wolf: A little bit we spoke about gifts, and the relation of gifts and the collections is if gifts are kept or if they circulate. The famous giraffe that was sent to the Chinese court came from Bengal, where there are no giraffes. And people thought they would come from there, but it was an African gift to the Bengal court and the giraffe was, perhaps, not feeding well at the court. Therefore it was sent to China. So the whole way of how gifts are circulating. When do you fix something? How stable are collections? How dynamic are collections? What is the trajectory of things staying in a collection? They may stay one year, 1,000 years, and then they go somewhere else. That is one point. So temporalities of collections would be a point I would like to bring in. And another point I would like to bring in more basically to the conference as such is how we negotiate ourselves to art, which we have discussed. It means historical collections of empires, and what happened to the historical collections of empires by means of modern museum cultures. So this is not a continuity. These are two fields which are in a relationship, but it is not yet clear to me which one.
Ruth Phillips: Thank you for bringing up that point I tried to make. Other people made a point about the diplomatic gift, as follows through on Gerhard’s comment. I wanted to expand just a little bit on this notion of “survivance”, which Gerald Vizenor has brought forward and which is being quoted a great deal these days in post-colonial work in North America. Because I think it may relate to other conquered peoples. Other peoples who have been forced to render up material. And as I don’t have any insight into the Mesopotamian examples that were given, it would be interesting to know if there is any value in this. Indigenous peoples – many, in various places in the world, when they give gifts – do that in order to establish a relationship of reciprocity. So that when the receiver accepts it, it is understood to mean that you accept an obligation to return something. And of course, when people in North America gave gifts to representatives of the Crown in the nineteenth century, they were, in a sense, coerced. They were not free. That is absolutely true. There is violence, in one form or another, in the environment. But, if we accept this notion that people, except in the most abject situations, retain forms of agency, find ways to stand up for themselves, then this giving of the gift is one of those gestures. And I am now referencing statements that have been made to me by Aboriginal people today, who look at these collections and see in them the evidence of these kinds of gestures. So there is a double issue here, because there is how we could reconstruct this historically, looking at this as historians, at all the documents we can find, at the things themselves. And then there is also the question of how these things are regarded today by people who have received in many cases inherited traditions of understanding of concepts. And I think, in Canada anyway, there has been a great effort to try and adjust museum processes so that we can accommodate those statements. “This is how you regard this object. We are going to try to regard it that way, or at least accommodate, the different ways that we can understand these things.” So for those people looking at the Swiss Cottage Museum collection, or other kinds of exchanges that are represented in other museum collections with maybe grander kinds of objects, they stand as evidence that there are unfulfilled obligations on the other side. And they really are being cited as evidence in land claims processes that are kind of fairly real-world situations. And I always write, when I write about museums, that museums operate on the level of symbolic capital, and we cannot rewrite land claims agreements in a curatorial position or when we make an exhibition in a museum. But through scholarship and through museum representation, we can make a space for those kinds of statements, so that we can advance this decolonizing situation today. There is a politics in everything that we do.
Ebba Koch: I would like to widen the definition of the gift with a non-prescribed gift, which we do not only have in the Mughal context where the nobility had to make presentations, and these presentations had to consist of certain objects. So an important part was the steward. So basically, this had to be done, and the object had to look like this. And it is not only in the Mughal context. I think as a correspondent, I think Edhem talked a lot between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. So one would really specify what one wanted to have, exactly in order to – we have to think about the reasons why we would have an object to look like this, and what its purpose will be.
Edhem Eldem: I would add, when you talk about a gift, is a gift something that you give of yourself to promote your image, or is it something that you give to please the other? These are totally different logics.
Ebba Koch: Yes, also, in some periods of the Mughal empire, the nobility had to buy objects from the treasury.
Edhem Eldem: That is where the gift is considered to be a tribute, in a sense.
Ebba Koch: No, I think it is a form of tax. It is not tribute.
Edhem Eldem: It is a form of poll tax. An application of submission.
Ebba Koch: It had to be expressed and performed, in a particular way.
Edhem Eldem: I am thinking of Elgin, for example. When Elgin gets, not the marbles, but pieces of Byzantine porphyry sarcophagi from Constantinople, the Ottoman diplomacy turns that into a gift. But they expressly say, “These are things of no value to us because we are not interested. We Muslims are not interested in those. And if we have played hard to get, it is basically to make it a gift of value in the eyes of…” So there is a lot of manipulation. It is not just the object itself, but it is also the value that you give to the object, and what you think is the value that the receiver is going to give to the object that determines the nature of the exchange.
Dominique Poulot: I would like to put on the table a difference between universality and universal value, and the notion, which is very woke today by a philosopher of common – it can be also about gifts — what is a universal masterpiece. It is clear that part of the story of the imperial collecting is also about the story of masterpieces. How do you produce, how do you invent, how do you produce the knowledge? And one very interesting part of these days was the social life of things, (( )) and all those things, and more, the story of the men and women, but there is a gender issue about that of course. The man, l’autre, who produces the knowledge, who produces legitimacy. And in some cases it does not work. Edhem and other examples were very clear about that. So you cannot produce the universality of what you collect. But, it could be common. It is a very different situation. But in some cases you have universal masterpieces, and of course you are in the process of violence, of war. Because it is the only way to take the masterpieces to another empire. So it is a very violent process. And I would stress this strongly, this point about the necessity to think of empire as linked to war, and towards the extending process, as Schiopetto did very clearly at the beginning of the twentieth century. So I think perhaps we must work a bit on also the notion of top-down versus bottom-up, because top-down is about imperial universality, but a lot more about what is common to some people. And there is, of course, a situation where empire is not able to put some common pieces on the table. And it is clear in the case of the Ottoman Empire.
Daniel Sherman: Following up on that, I was struck over the course of the past couple of days, at the difference between people who are interested in accumulation – which is not the same thing as collecting but is certainly related to it, and the difference between those is worth considering – and dispersal. And I use the word dispersal deliberately, because in French it is what happens at an auction. Works are dispersed. This is something that Tapati (Tapati Guha-Thakurta) asked you about. And, to do a kind of a pathetic paraphrase of Walter Benjamin, it seems to me there are no histories of accumulation that are not also histories of dispersal. And I think that – just during this exchange about gift, what is a gift, what is compelled, who is it from – the terminology we use is very important. And even the categories that we use, and I was thinking about this in relation to Christoph’s (Christoph Zuschlag) paper from Thursday, are not innocent. If you are dividing your stuff according to the legal regimes that governed the way in which they were seized that leaves out certain moral dimensions. On the other hand, as we heard from Eva’s paper, injunctions about moral responsibility are very situational and can be very problematic. And I do not want to distance this too much from what is going on now. But one of the words that did not come up, and I wish Tapati had not had to leave because I wanted to ask her about this, in her paper is ‘theft’. This is a word that we seem to avoid. Maybe ‘looting’. Because looting, spoliation, are all forms of theft. And we should keep in mind, now that ISIS is not simply blowing up things, it is also trafficking in objects from archaeological sites, which really poses a lot of dilemmas for the issues of preservation that Edhem wanted us to talk about. And it sort of brings up in difficult ways, long-standing controversies about the connection between museums and multi-forms of empire, notably the empire of global capital that was the subtext of Wendy’s (Wendy Shaw) paper.
Zainab Bahrani: A new imperial museum type, which is different from the ones that we have been studying. The type that Wendy brought up. But also, what you mentioned Daniel, brings us back to the question of saving. Taking things to museums in order to rescue them, or to save them, because this is part of today’s rhetoric, obviously. That if we do not save them into the museum, they will be destroyed.
Edhem Eldem: And it has been since the end of the eighteenth century. That is Elgin’s argument for the friezes.
Zainab Bahrani: Yes, but I would say that it is a rhetoric that has become recharged, or redeployed, or somehow reinvigorated in the past couple of years.
Edhem Eldem: Because barbarism has been reinvented in the form of ISIS. And what they are doing is basically what the Nazis were doing. Distributing, or trafficking with what is valuable, at an international level. And of course, somebody is buying. And collecting.
Wendy Shaw: I was going to add to the nice term of ‘theft’ and go one step further. Museums and collections as spaces of money laundering and object laundering. Because I think that is something that also happens through this passage of objects and the erasure of their histories as a collection, is that we get something that is very pretty, and it is art, and part of the purpose of us making something aesthetic is to have that purpose of taking it outside of the present, putting it back in the past, and then neutralizing it. And I think this goes back to the discussion of Görlitz’ collection going to Bern, and what it meant for it to go to Switzerland. And it was huge in Bern at the time, because there was obviously a political component regardless of how legal it is. But I think that is the same issue with the objects currently on the market resulting, not only from ISIS, but probably also from all the sites that are involved in the war. That is, the Assad regime has also been engaged in all the wonderful things that everybody else has been doing, so it is a free for all there. Money laundering.
Edhem Eldem: This is getting more and more negative and kind of pessimistic. Violence, money laundering, theft, and we started with collecting.
Wendy Shaw: One thing I have been thinking about a lot is, with all these critiques of the museum, these critiques of collection and things like that, what would be better alternatives? Do we have a way of framing this, aside from historiography, and going, “Let us re-narrate colonialism in order to understand colonialism”? Do we have positive models through which to apprehend that are, instead of being based towards the past, might be based towards the future? And how would we do that? It is something I have been playing with a lot in my work, and I am sure you have some thoughts about it as well.
Eva Troelenberg: I think that it actually is a bit dangerous, to start with notions of doing things right and doing things wrong. Considering that we have looked at very changeful histories. I am trying to put a bit of an abstract label on what I have heard now. Through all these statements, I think every one of you somehow seems to be interested in the role of what we can call momentum. What is it that sets things in motion? Or, to say it in a neutral way, without needing to use the word ‘gift’, without needing to use the word ‘theft’, and so on. So what is the momentum that sets this thing in motion, and that perhaps sets also a concept in motion. We have talked about notions of mobility, and therefore motion is not something entirely new to us. So what I am wondering also, deconstructing the overall concept of the conference, what is the merit of combining this with the notion of imperial?
Ruth Phillips: I would like to make a link between your question and something that Daniel said in his paper, when he talked about the way in which some of the museums he discussed had completely obscured the histories of the objects that were in them. Because I have also puzzled about the very different approaches people have taken in the conference, all of them extremely valuable. Some people are really more focused on tracing provenances and reconstructing the historical collection, while other people were looking at certain problems of exhibition and display, representation. But I think we cannot skip the step of the research to establish the accurate provenance. I mean, what you (Eva) did in your paper is to show us, and it is an aspect of the social biography of things, but it is more than that. Because it is having an accurate record of the trajectory of that object from its origin to now. And without that, we cannot perform any of these acts that we might want to do in different contexts of restitution, even just cognizance of the history. I guess I come up against this all the time, because whenever I have a chance to talk to an indigenous group about some of the research I do, they look just astonished at finding out that stuff their ancestors made are in this little museum, or that little museum, all over the world. How did it get there? There is a complete gap and I am sure it is not just these indigenous communities. If we do believe that we all have patrimonies, matrimonies, that are in public hands now by and large, there is an exercise of connecting individual and community and regional, local histories to this patrimony. And I do not think we can skip that step and I really think it is at risk in some of the museology that is going on now.
Zainab Bahrani: I would like to add maybe one very obvious point, that you Eva, and Maia, invited us here to speak about collecting and empire. And I think we can speak about collecting in several different ways, and if this had just been called ‘Collecting’, we may have done something different. But as you invited us to consider collecting and empire, I think we have to think about empire. And Edhem mentioned violence which, I think for me, really resonates, and I for one, cannot think of empire in a positive way. I have a very difficult time thinking about imperialism with a positive spin and with kind of masking its history of violence. And so the collecting that I associate with empire is associated with acts of violence. So I do not think this is necessarily the case for all aspects of collecting, but as we are speaking about empire, I think that that is kind of the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.
Gerhard Wolf: It is interesting. I was thinking while you were speaking. I am completely convinced by what you say. If we would just take out the word ‘empire’ and say ‘nation-state’, if it would also not be true?
Edhem Eldem: Even more violent.
Zainab Bahrani: Nation-state as well, but I mean there are other forms of collecting, obviously.
Gerhard Wolf: So now I will just try to do the task that she is giving us. How can we work on empires? And working myself in the pre-modern time where we have every kind of violent situation, every kind of political onus, I wonder if we do not speak about, let us say the eighteenth century and beyond, but before the eighteenth century, if we speak about empires, what do we mean by that?
Zainab Bahrani: I meant empires in every age. I did not mean just eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Gerhard Wolf: I got that, but I am trying to figure out what an empire is. And shall we define empire by being a violent congregation of people? So the question is, what is an empire? Can we determine this by means of the dynamics of collecting, also kinds of typologies, or distinguish cartographies of different kinds of imperial models by means of what you have asked for by their self-fashioning? For example we have empires who self-fashion themselves by means of insisting on the multi-ethnicity and multi-religious identity of their empire. There are others who insist on homogeneity. Imposed, so to speak, Stalinist architecture. Even if it is actually more varied than one thinks. These are questions which come into play if we deconstruct a little bit the notion of empire historically.
Edhem Eldem: If I may, on the issue of the nation-state and the empire, I think that the difference is that the empire destroys, but the nation-state can annihilate, which is different. That is the difference. In an Ottoman context, I take the Armenian genocide to be the breaking point between the empire, which commits massacres, and the nation-state that commits genocide. It is different, and therefore while I encourage listing violence as one of the elements of empire, it is never as total as it can be in the case of the nation-state. So in that sense, there is even higher potential of destruction. Does that work really with collections? I think it does, for example when you think of Nazism, etc. The problem however is that when we think of nineteenth century empires, and take the examples of the colonial empires, those are problematic empires because at the core they are nation-states. They are already extremely capable of a kind of violence and complete annihilation that the traditional empires do not have. So that makes them very different from one of the last representatives of the empires a l’ancienne like the Ottomans.
Daniel Sherman: Although the nation-states experiment with new forms of violence in the colonial theater. The first concentration camps are in Southwest Africa.
Edhem Eldem: Exactly. That is what I mean! That the colonial empire is less imperial than we think. It is imperialist, but at the core it is imbedded in the concept of the nation and otherness and complete *otherization of the colonies. It is different.
Gerhard Wolf: One of my questions is how the nation-states who have the heritage of the imperial collections, handle that narrative by means of their museums? That is one of the topics we are also discussing
Edhem Eldem: And that is what they do really very badly, I think.
Felicity Bodenstein: In terms of what you just said, I want to throw in the word restitution again, because it has come up a few times and I think it is one of the results of dealing with the iconic memory of empire. And if we think about empire in terms of processes of appropriation, very variable ones that go through violence, political, economic, cultural, I wonder what restitution is? And is it just about physical restitution, or maybe about other elements, like what Ms. Phillips was saying about finding out what the history of this object is, and showing it, and putting it in place in a museum so that we understand the history of the object.
Daniel Sherman: Well one of the things that has not really come up but I think is worth thinking about, is where we are. As I was looking for the restroom, passing all of these rooms full of boxes with photographs in them, I was thinking that the entire contents of this building could be incorporated in the flash drive I have in my pocket. Think about restitution in the digital age, when it is possible to have extremely detailed, extremely accurate, life-sized reproductions of things. This was sort of an undercurrent to what I was saying. So you don not want to give the entire biography of an object on the wall, but at least put it on your website! Do not just tell me the salad spinner is made of plastic. And some museums are doing this – and a lot of them in the context of provenance research – as a way of demonstrating that they are the legitimate owners of the works in their collections. There was just an article in the New York Times about the digitization of scientific specimens, especially entomological collections. And you think of a museum the size of the Natural History Museum in London, and really everything that it is there for, all of those specimens that they have. For the scientists who use them, having them digitized is more or less the equivalent, if they are dead. Which they are, because it is natural history. And so I agree we need to think more about the concept of empire, but we also need to think about our attachment to things in relation. In this day and age, what difference does it make where the Elgin marbles are?
Edhem Eldem: Ask the Greeks.
Daniel Sherman: No, I actually ask that question to the British.
Gerhard Wolf: We have started a big project to consider each photograph of an object, and in fact what comes out, by starting from our early collection of photographs, by taking them in hand and looking at what is happening to this kind of paper, and all that kind of stuff. There are a lot of things coming out. I am not fetishizing the object as such but I have to say it.
Marc van de Mieroop: I want to play devil’s advocate here, and Eva sort of made me want to ask this, what about knowledge? Collecting and knowledge? You talked about scientific specimens, which means that people head to Central America to kill birds and bring them back to collections. And I have heard quite a lot of criticisms of collection here. Why should one not also take into account all the good aspects of bringing whatever it is — specimens, world culture – into a central place for knowledge purposes?
Edhem Eldem: The museum as encyclopedia.
Wendy Shaw: In relation to that, it depends what one thinks of as knowledge. There is a quotation I have, “Knowledge is silence and when you talk, you show what you do not know.” So that is, in my opinion, one of the problems of museums. But coming to this issue of digitalization, it is of course the next step, and there is a corporation that just had a conference in Berlin called Cryar, and they are advocating cryogenic preservation of objects, which is basically 3D modelling of sites and objects. And the greatest success of this right now is the Bamiyan Buddhas, which have been reconstructed as holograms. The issue the of course is that you could theoretically have a Bamiyan Buddha sitting right here as a hologram, and that would be O.K. because it has been destroyed. But what do you do with a site like Mes Anyak, which is right now being excavated in Afghanistan, and the site has been purchased by Chinese mining interests? In that case you could theoretically justify the destruction of such a site through 3D modelling. And let us just imagine that with technology developing it becomes possible to make a perfect copy. Then you could say, “We do not need the authentic site. The archaeology is for the purpose of getting the information, and then the site is not useful to us.” What happens then is that the people who live there, who are villagers, become the people who excavate the site. So they have a new source of labor, but then the mining company comes in, and the same people become miners. So it is not just, “What do we do with the archaeological heritage?”, but “How does this change, in multiple stages, the local economy?” Which has always been an issue with site archaeology, but in this case there is yet another step to it.
Edhem Eldem: But are we still talking about the empire? I think we have moved into another dimension, which is extremely interesting, but I do not think we are talking about the empire anymore.
Caroline Vout: Well, it is not about empire so much as about restitution and the responsibility of museums to kind of put provenance on display, I absolutely agree with you. But obviously I am a classicist, and in my field there are swaths of objects which have no provenance. Things like the Sevso treasure, which is sitting in a bank vault, and actually this sort of demand for provenance is making Hungary, Turkey, and all of these countries stand up and say, “They are ours” in a way that is actually both imperialist in all sorts of ways, and extremely unproductive, and just ensures that those objects will never be on public display and will never be studied. Something like the Sarpedon Krater, which was in the Met, was repatriated not long ago to Italy, where Italy used it – and who can blame them? – as a symbol of Italy’s greatness. That object was actually made in Greece, in the fifth century BCE and wound up in Italy because the Etruscans collected it, I suppose. To go back to what Zainab was saying before, she thought there was even more emphasis now in museums on saving objects, and I think she is absolutely right. Daniel mentioned the Parthenon marbles, and it is very interesting and terrible in all sorts of ways, that in the British Museum today so much attention is given in the literature that is on the walls to the fact that if they were not in the British Museum, they would have been destroyed. And you go to Athens, and there it is all about the fact that, because they are in the British Museum, they were scrubbed with acid and therefore they were damaged.
Ruth Phillips: I think we are talking about empire, in Zainab’s sense, when we talk about restitution. Because if we agree with her that we do not really want to be living in empires anymore, leaving aside global capital empires and corporations, which is another discussion.
Daniel Sherman: We don’t want to be living in those either.
Ruth Phillips: Exactly.
Zainab Bahrani: It is a form of empire.
Edhem Eldem: Do you want to live in the nation-state?
Ruth Phillips: Until somebody finds a better solution! Right at the moment, in Canada, I am happy to live in the nation-state, but I was not two months ago. We had a conversation the other day about this term ‘post-empire’, which we both agreed was not accurate. But we are in a de-imperializing moment, a decolonizing moment – an attempt, in other words, to investigate the histories of conquest and oppression and the removal of freedoms, and we are trying to, by coming to terms with that, in some cases take some actions that are reparative, which we cannot always take because we often do not have the information and probably never will. It is this obsession we have in many settler societies these days. I think that part of the issue is bringing the originating societies into the conversation if it is appropriate to the situation. Obviously there are no living Mesopotamians. You do not do it that way, and that is not the issue, but it is in many cases.
Edhem Eldem: The Hittites are Turks, or the Turks are Hittites. There’s always a possibility.
Ruth Phillips: Exactly! I actually can quite well remember that in Vancouver, when they decided to do a big Greek exhibition on ancient Greece, they involved the modern-day Greek community. But you decide what is appropriate. But I do think that restitution is a response to the imperial heritage, so I think it is important.
Edhem Eldem: It is, but I think that there is another dimension, which is obvious in Katia’s (Katia Dianina) presentation and partly in what I did not say about the Turkish reinvention of the Ottoman Empire, which is that the empire is being recreated by the nation-state in a way that is totally different from what the empire really is about. And that is a terrible distortion, and it does reflect in the collections of what is supposed to be imperial, but in fact is only a very national slice of that empire that eventually dovetails with the national discourse. That is also another problem, and that you cannot even solve with restitution, because the empire is about not restituting too, in a sense.
Ebba Koch: No, but Turkey is asking now for objects in museums of the United States. It is a recent development and it has become a neo-empire I think.
Edhem Eldem: Yes, obviously. And the problem is that Turkey is not even properly taking care of what it has, to be asking for the restitution of other objects. The way in which the Byzantine past in Istanbul is completely wiped out of the historical narrative is in itself a scandal. There should be some kind of a punitive measure against that. But the issue is that restitution is not an imperial but a national discourse. So obviously it has a link to the empire, because the restitution is generally of what has been conquered by empires over what will become a nation, but in its own historical context, it is not. And there is the other aspect of the reinvention of the empire by the nation-state as a caricature of some kind of a prelude to a teleological construct that is extremely problematic as well.
Daniel Sherman: I would like to go back briefly to Marc’s question about knowledge. You know very well that knowledge is bound up with empire in all kinds of ways. Linguistic knowledge, scientific knowledge, historical knowledge. Yesterday when I played hookie and went to the ethnographic museum, I realized I was in the empire of Western knowledge. There are signs. There is more stuff from former Italian colonies disproportionately, but there is stuff from everywhere in that museum, including human remains. And they were brought in the service of Western knowledge, not all of which was used to support the structures of empire, but it is very hard to disentangle those things. Email was invented so that scientists could share knowledge without physically shipping themselves and other things around. I think scientists should use it more.
Ebba Koch: Now that brings us to the didactics of the object. What is the object? What is the effect of the object, and what impact does it have? As I explained in the Mughal context, when the villagers came and saw, they were inspired. The artistic response of one’s own. Obviously it happened all during the nineteenth century in England with industrial museums. In the museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum, founded to give inspiration to industrial design. The other is the object which should teach – which does teach something.
Daniel Sherman: But the objects from the colonies in the Victoria and Albert are there to teach craftsmen principles of design, which are associated with some much essentialized notions of the East, as you know very well. But they are also there to celebrate empire, and to indoctrinate the people in the virtues of empire by associating it with beautiful things.
Edhem Eldem: But when we talk about knowledge, and what you described for example in the Anthropological Museum (Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology), which I hope to see, are we talking about empire, or are we talking about hegemony, which is not exactly the same thing? And when you talk about this center-periphery relationship in the nineteenth century, I think ‘hegemony’ describes better the relationship of the West to the rest than ‘empire’ does. Especially when you use ‘empire’ in a more traditional sense.
Wendy Shaw: I would like to make a quick comment that as you are talking about empire and nation-state, you are talking about historic empire. It is as if there is a progression from historic models of empire towards the nation-state. And I think that we also need to be thinking about these in the more contemporary sense of corporate, neo-capital empire and the different kinds of empire which are reconstructing capital today. Because a lot of these museums are not strictly under the governance of the state, but there are also issues of investment. Issues of local investment, international investment, and so on, which I think alter the issue. And this goes back, of course, to ISIS and of course to the Gulf museums, but also to the practices of investment in major local museums today. That is transnational and it is also imperial in a different sense.
Edhem Eldem: The profusion of terms that sound the thing but mean different things is not necessarily a very comfortable thing. Empire is used in so many – imperium is different, empire is different. It is problematic to use it in such a wide way in my opinion.
Wendy Shaw: Was that not part of the framing of the conference to describe (( ))…
Maia Gahtan: In fact one of the things that we hoped to do is to use material culture and objects to help understand and define different types of empires on the basis of how they look at objects, either as things which can produce knowledge through the process of their collecting and classification or which can create political and social links between different people and populations.
Edhem Eldem: I think that, as a historian, the use of the same term to describe moments, phenomena that are really very different is sometimes problematic, because it becomes very slippery. I was at the Blois rendez-vous de l’histoire this year. The theme was ‘Empire’, and of course there was a whole festival, and ‘empire’ was used in the most broad sense. The film festival had Citizen Kane, for example. But it made sense in a certain way, but then again historically it is sometimes problematic I think.
Davide Domenici: On this problem of the conflict between empire and nation-state, I think that it is difficult to define empire, but maybe a quite common trait is that empire and imperial ideology is based on the idea of bringing together diversity, while nation-state is based on the idea of homogeneity.
Edhem Eldem: Managing diversity, not bringing together. Managing. It is not an intent.
Davide Domenici: So imperial collections, at least the ones I know from the Spanish empire, are used to build a narrative about this bringing together diversity while nation-states build a narrative on continuity, on homogeneity, and I think this is an interesting dichotomy. And probably it is one of the reasons why imperial collecting is so interesting for us today. Because Daniel Sherman showed us that contemporary museums are struggling with the problem of diversity. And in the lack of an imperial ideology, they have no clue how to bring this diversity together. They have tried universal aesthetics as one, but the problem is again diversity. So probably the imperial side of collecting is interesting at least for this reason.
Gerhard Wolf: You hear what Michael (Michael North) said, “I have a universal museum in London and then I have a universal population of the metropolis.” I do not say it in an affirmative way, just that one of the answers to your question is this one. To say that the actual, new way of recreation and display of different – you spoke about people. We come back to people within the global society. So then the constellation of things — your museum again becomes attractive, so to speak, for new narratives. That is also just an answer to not give back the Elgin marbles.
Marc van de Mieroop: If you want to know about Libya and Eritrea, you come to the ethnological museum here. If you want to know about Central Africa, you go to the ethnological museum in Brussels. So there is a direct relationship between the traditional empire and where the focus of these ethnographic museums lies.
Edhem Eldem: Well, Libya was an Ottoman colony for four centuries. If you want to learn something about Libya, you should not go to Istanbul. Istanbul has nothing on Libya to offer.
Ruth Phillips: Because it did not have, according to your talk, a museological tradition.
Edhem Eldem: It did not have a colonial tradition, either. It was not the same kind of empire.
Daniel Sherman: We are talking about all the knowledge regimes of modernity, certainly those of us who work on museums as opposed to collecting. And that is an important distinction.
Edhem Eldem: It is the narrative. The difference is collecting as hoarding, thesaurusizing, or whatever you want to call it, and putting a narration on it. And that is different.
Ruth Phillips: I also wish Tapati was still here, because she really introduced at the end this notion of different temporalities of modernity, and I think your talk today illustrated that as well. It is interesting to think about your talk in relation to this issue of the ethnographic museum here as a kind of provincial copy – and not really provincial, because it is as old as the other universal museums, but it has not changed as much as they have, so maybe we see that. The point is, at the time that it was created, Italy was just becoming unified right around then. And I am wondering – this is just an idea to try out – if, even though Turkey and the Ottomans, and the Italians, were not at that moment in full imperial advance on the world, does the creation of these universal, Western, modern institutions in the set that you (Edhem) check-listed for us, actually prepare a nation for assuming a more imperial role in some way? Or a more oppressive national role, to again go back to what you just said? In other words, is the presumption of control, of – what Terry Smith would call ‘world picturing’, the creating institutions for yourself which give you this panoptic view allowing you to assume a sense of control over the world through the representation you create for yourself – does that actually empower the society, or at least its governing institutions, to try to exert that kind of control, whether it is national or, eventually… Italy did not become a colonial power until after it created those institutions. I am just trying it out here. I am not convinced of what I am saying.
Edhem Eldem: No, I agree. The Ottomans never had that museum. They had a publication that was that museum. The Costumes populaires (de la Turquie, 1873) for the Vienna exhibition is a panopticon of costume throughout the empire, in an effort at proving that you have control over it. So it is something that combines empire with modernity and the idea of control. Accepting diversity, but claiming centralization and appropriation.
Gerhard Wolf: The Florentine case is interesting because it has a stratigraphy of collecting. It is not just collecting of the nineteenth century, under the imperial or the colonial environment, but it also has a substantial number of objects of the early modern globalization dreams of the Florentine dukes, which were small states which always tried to be competitive on the level of collections with the big empires. So it is interesting to see how partly it is going back to that – to a very different imperial model of collecting for other reasons. That is one point. The other point is what you just said, if empires are defined, let us say that for a moment by even inner diversity, then there are two ways of collecting empires. One is display of the inner diversity. Take the Pantheon: built of all marbles present in the Roman Empire. It is the nunti, it is the model of the empire. Or the Hagia Sofia. That is a collection. Hagia Sofia is a collection of materials. And that is one point. The other point is, then, the relation to the outside world by means of gifts, and every kind of booty, and so on. So the level is a double one. One is the inner heterogeneity of the empire, which is very often represented by means of tributes. Take the Aztec manuscripts with the tribute coming from all parts. So you have the Quetzal feathers coming from Guatemala. They are not indigenous in the valley of Mexico City. And so you display the riches of your empire by means of your collections. Qianlong is also doing it in eighteenth century China. But there are also the objects coming from the rest of the world. So you accept that there are other empires around, and that you have a relation to them and have also access to their global objects. So this is early modern dynamics too, which I want to bring back in our discussion.
Maia Wellington Gahtan: However, it seems that in the case of Catarina Schmidt Arcangeli’s talk it is exactly the opposite thing that was happening. I mean that Venice did not want to display the power or the richness of other domains, but they wanted to take it for themselves so they got rid of the provenance of these appropriated objects.
Gerhard Wolf: It is the opposite and the same, because the question is what you display, and what you keep.
Maia Wellington Gahtan: Display, but it became their history and their mythology.
Ebba Koch: In the Metropolitan Museum, in fact, in the new galleries of Islamic art, when I went to see it with Navina Haidar before it was opened, she also pointed out proudly to me that in each room the material used came from this particular part of the Islamic world.
Ebba Koch: Yes, and the stone for the floors also came from the countries where the objects were shown, so that there was a similar idea.
Gerhard Wolf: I do not want to define a model. I want to make a cartography of various models. And these are some of the categories we have to consider, to work out the historically imperial situations.
Ilaria Porciani: I think that one should distinguish among different kinds of empires in the same point in time. And I think that it is crucial at this point to think of the case of the Habsburg Empire in the nineteenth century, which is an empire which allows the collecting and the creation, for national purposes within the borders of the empire. The case of the Prague museum (the National Museum), which is a collection within an empire, and yet enhancing a nation within limits, and within the borders of the empire, and the presentation of the empire as such through different kinds of museums and collections which aim to be more universal. So I think this is interesting to see and compare with the Ottoman Empire for instance, or with other strategies. Here counts the difference between the empire and the nation-state and the different possibilities of combining the two. And I think it is also interesting to see in which direction the collections for the new nation-state go, and how different these directions are from the older collections which happen to be in a new nation-state. I will make an example. Belgium, which creates immediately the national museum and the national university, and they create, and they rewrite the history of the new collection to some extent. Or Italy, which inherits so many different collections and reorganizes them. And yet with the problem of bringing together different parts which are so heterogeneous and have no empire dream behind them, except perhaps for the Roman collection which is nice. But I think this complicates the picture, and this comparison complicates the picture, but maybe to rethink this…
Edhem Eldem: Again I think we have much more to say about the collections being formed than the collections being viewed, perceived, received. Reception is still one of the missing things. Does it work? Does the message really work? In my case, most scholars have worked on the assumption that the Ottoman museum, the Imperial Museum, was visited. It was not. So what do you do with a museum that is not visited? Obviously there is an intent, but if there is no response what do you do?
Ilaria Porciani: It is like the question of the archives. Everybody says the archives were open after the French Revolution, but historians did not go. I think in some cases they were open, but they were not used by historians immediately.
Ruth Phillips: Both are bringing something very important out. What we have been seeing is the establishment of an imperial model of collecting and display. But that it is then disseminated as a model but not used in the same way in all these other contexts, but it is still a paradigm which has had a tremendous effect. The universality of the collection, of the collecting model – in a way, that is what links all the presentations. And then finally we get to a moment where it is trying to be undone, and we are not sure how to do it because it is such a powerful paradigm.
Edhem Eldem: Sic exit imperium. I think we have had three very full days of discussion, of imagination around the whole notion of collecting and empires. We are all tired, so let us take an imperial kind of leave, an imperial rest. I think we have deserved it, and once again, thank you so much to the organizers.