On 1 March the Centre for Museum Cultures hosted what proved to be an engaging and animated lecture by Wendy Shaw, Professor of the Art History of Islamic Cultures at the Free University of Berlin.
Shaw opened her talk with images of birds with multi-hued plumes preserved in their thousands at a natural history museum in Berlin, describing the systematic collection of thousands of creatures culled from various parts of the world and now housed in a form of feathered purgatory. She described the cabinet storage and display strategies designed for the delectation of the western gaze as the entombment of dead objects in the museum.
The speaker drew parallels between the collection, categorisation, curation and display of these artefacts and the processes that now define Islamic art in the museum space. She observed the lingering presence of Hegelian approaches to the production of history, and specifically art history, in modern curatorial practices. Hegel’s Philosophy of History in particular, a lecture series given in alternating years starting in 1823 delineated, she explained, a vision of history that naturalises empire, emphasising the racial and geographical superiority of the West over the East, and of Protestant Christianity over everything else.
Highlighting the colonial legacies of museums, Shaw noted that the acquisition and categorisation of objects had been carried out without an understanding of the cultures concerned. Pointing to the mismatch between the original purposes of collections of material artefacts and the manner of their display today, she underlined the necessity of acknowledging and critiquing Hegel’s legacy within the museum context. No number of contemporary exhibitions or the rewriting of museum narratives can change these structures of empire that remain embedded within the episteme she contended, arguing that the decolonisation of minds can only be achieved by the rewriting of institutional structures, not merely words.
Shaw noted that while the category of Islamic Art emerged largely in Germanic art historical discourse, with the emigration of several of its proponents to the United States the essentialist biases of several writers, curators and critics began to shape the ways in which Islamic art has been understood in the ‘West’. She argued that through these practices, and the processes of modernity, such material objects – now absorbed within notions of a ‘universal’ language of art – were effectively rendered silent. Raising the question of how to recover the voices of such worlds, Shaw problematised the development of contemporary exhibition strategies. A lively exchange of views and questions followed the lecture.
Dr Vazken Davidian
Dr Davidian recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck on the subject of The Figure of the Bantoukhd Hamal of Constantinople: Late Nineteenth-Century Representations of Migrant Workers from Ottoman Armenia.