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Objects without Status between Middle Eastern Excavation Sites and Europe’s Museums

Mirjam Brusius

The Canon under Threat

This project examines archaeological objects in transit from the Middle East to Europe where major 19th-century museums in London, Paris and Berlin attempted to incorporate them into European canonical traditions. Whether it be the actual excavations, the transport of objects, or finding them an appropriate home in European museums, this process did not take place without difficulties. This research project yields a different story from previous accounts: objects were lost in transit and many of the finds ended up in storage because they threatened prevailing canonical ideas. Albeit their potential was recognized – Assyrian cuneiform tablets, for example, were hoped to serve as material evidence of the accounts of the Old Testament – many of the objects had ‘no status’ and their meaning was dynamic and negotiable. Juxtaposing first-hand accounts of the excavators with further archival evidence, this project will explore aspects of serendipity, chance and chaos in the history of these expeditions at a time when academic disciplines and institutions were in flux. The project scrutinizes teleological approaches and reconstructs how European canons developed out of moments of insecurity, uncertainty, contingency, indiscipline, and disorder. As such, it is a critical contribution to the troubled history of Europe’s archaeological and imperial endeavors in the Ottoman Empire.

Local Preservation Practices in the Ottoman Empire

Archaeology and tangible heritage (artefacts, buildings and sites) have always played key roles in identity and nation-building in the Middle East. Yet we have little insights into what in the Middle East has historically been deemed of value, why, and for whom. Further, current notions of what ‘heritage’ is and how it was and should be preserved are limited. Ottoman and European sources, for example, suggest alternatives to Western concepts of preservation, which should be better understood on their own terms and for the impact they continue to exert in these regions today. This project aims to develop directions for further debate that recognize cultural difference to pay attention to the manifold non-elite, bottom-up and indigenous engagements with the material past in the 19th and 20th century, such as recycling. The project treats preservation and destruction as historical phenomena, which were not always exclusive binaries but often two sides of the same coin.