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Empire and Heritage in Light of the Decolonization Debate

Mirjam Brusius

The Empire in Storage: Objects without Status between Middle Eastern Excavation Sites and Europe’s Museums

This monograph (under contract with Oxford University Press) investigates European-led excavations in ‘the cradle of civilization’ in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) and the subsequent processes of canonization and decanonization that the excavated finds underwent upon their arrival in the leading museums in Europe. My work provides a transregional perspective on museums, collecting, and fieldwork as an imperial enterprise, incorporating the British Empire, France, and Prussia. By raising questions that are of concern for the decolonization of museums and archaeology today, the project is also a critical contribution to the history of Europe’s imperial endeavours in the Ottoman Empire. How were emerging survey methods and disciplines such as archaeology instrumentalized for political, orientalist, and racial discourse in this increasingly contested landscape?

The project yields a different story from previous accounts: using the logistical infrastructure of European empires, objects were lost in transit and many of the finds ended up in storage because they threatened prevailing canonical ideas. Although their potential was recognized, many of the objects initially 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 colonial resistance, indigenous labour, and 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 colonial museums in Europe developed out of moments of insecurity, uncertainty, contingency, indiscipline, and disorder.

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Preservation and Destruction in the Middle East

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 insight into which objects and locations have historically been deemed of value in the Middle East, and why, and by whom, they have been valued. 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 differences in order to pay attention to the manifold non-elite, bottom-up, and indigenous engagements with the material past in the 19th and 20th centuries, 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.

Related publications



Edited Books, Special Issues and Round Tables

with K. Singh (eds.), Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt (London, 2018)

(ed.), What is Preservation? Diversifying Engagement with the Middle East’s Material Past, Round Table, Review of Middle East Studies, 51/2, (2017)

Articles in Journals

‘100 Histories of the World in one Object: Itineraries, Islam and Indices’, Special Issue ‘Islam and Vernacularization’, Journal of Material Religion, 15/2 (2019), 243–5 [peer review]

‘Hitting two Birds with one Stone: An Afterword on Archeology and the History of Science’, Special Issue ‘Disassembling Archaeology, Reassembling the Modern World: Questions and Possibilities’, History of Science, 55/3 (2017), 383–91 [peer review]

‘Introduction – What is Preservation?’, Review of Middle East Studies, 51/2 (2017), 177–82 [peer review]

‘The Field in the Museum: Puzzling out Babylon in Berlin’, Special Issue ‘Histories of Data’, Osiris, 32 (2017), 264–85 [peer review]

Das mediale Bild: Zerstörung als PR-Instrument’, Special Issue ‘Damnatio memoriae’, der architekt, 2/16, 43–8

‘Towards a History of Preservation Practices: Archaeology, Heritage and the History of Science’, Round Table on ‘Science Studies’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47/3 (2015), 574–9 [peer review]

 ‘Le Tigre, le Louvre et les échanges de connaissances archéologiques visuelles entre la France et la Grande-Bretagne aux alentours de 1850’, Cahiers de l'Ecole du Louvre, 5 (2014), 34–46

‘Misfit Objects: Excavations in Mesopotamia and Biblical Imagination in Mid-19th Century Britain’, Journal of Literature and Science, 5/1 (2012), 38–52 [peer review]


Articles in Books

‘On Connecting the Ancient and the Modern Middle East in Museums and Public Space’, in Sharon McDonald, Katarzyna Puzon and Mirjam Shatanawi (eds.), Islam and Heritage in Europe (London, 2021), 183–201

‘Objects and History Adrift: Contextualizing the Debate about Middle Eastern “Heritage”’, in U. Fleckner and E. Tolstichin (eds.), Das verirrte Kunstwerk: Bedeutung, Funktion und Manipulation von ‘Bilderfahrzeugen’ in der Diaspora (Berlin/Munich, 2019), 55–71

‘Recycling Antiquity: A Reusable Itinerary to some “Gateways” of the Middle East’, in O. Kholeif (ed.), Two Days After Forever: A Reader On The Choreography Of Time, Venice Biennale Catalogue for the Cyprus Pavilion (Berlin, 2015), 140–53

‘The Ancient Near East in Storage: Assyrian Museum Objects as a Cultural Challenge in Victorian England’, in A. Meyer and B. Savoy (eds.), The Museum is Open: Towards a Transnational History of Museums 1750–1940 (Berlin, 2013), 19–30



Conference review of: 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object, University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica (8–13 Dec. 2019), in German Historical Institute London Bulletin, 42/1 (2020)

Conference review of: Ruins of Preservation. German Historical Institute London (11–12 July 2019), in German Historical Institute London Bulletin, 42/1 (2020)


Journalism, Outreach, Blog Essays

with Lorenz Rollhäuser, Auf Sumpf gebaut. Imperial Träume auf der Berliner Museumsinsel’, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 28 June 2022

Global Stories of Museum Artefacts’, BBC History Extra Podcast, 15 June 2022

‘Hand in Hand. Antikensammlungen waren mit der Rassetheorie eng verwoben. Die Museen sollten sich dieser Geschichte stellen. Das betrifft auch die Personalpolitik: Glaubwürdig sind Museen erst, wenn sie Forschungsstellen mit Zuwanderern besetzen’, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 21, 26 Jan. 2020, 9

with Alice Stevenson and Subhadra Das, ‘100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 5 Dec. 2019

From the Ruins of Preservation: A Symposium on Rethinking Heritage through Counter-Archives’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10 Apr. 2019

Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25 June 2018

 ‘Koloniales Erbe: Die ethnologischen Museen müssen sich neu erfinden’, contribution to ‘Zerstörung ist Leben’, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 19, 24 Jan. 2018, 11

‘Das Humboldtforum ist nur der Anfang. Imperialistische Zerstörung und museale Konservierung waren schon immer Komplizen. Doch wie viel kritische Sammlungsgeschichte ertragen Museen, ohne sich abzuschaffen?’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6, 27 Sept. 2017, 12

 ‘“Where Do the Things in European Museums Come From?” – 5in10 with Mirjam Brusius’, interview, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20 Dec. 2017

Ein Museum wirft sie auf keinen Fall weg! Thoughts on Preservation, Disposal and Destruction’, CARMAH Reflections, 3 Apr. 2017

The Middle East Heritage Debate is becoming Worryingly Colonial’, The Conversation, 25 Apr. 2016

Related Events and Presentations

100 Histories of the World in One Object: Revisiting Object Biographies’, co-organized with Subhadra Das, Alice Stevenson, and James Robertson, BMBF-funded workshop in collaboration with the Forum Transregional Studies Berlin and the University of the West Indies 2019

 ‘“From the Ruins of Preservation”: A Symposium on Rethinking Heritage through Counter-Archives’, co-organized with Rodney Harrison, German Historical Institute London/UCL 2019

From Collected to Contested: The Future of Museums after the Repatriation Debate’, co-organized with Subhadra Das, Clémentine Deliss, Tristram Hunt, and Alice Procter, round table organized and chaired by Mirjam Brusius, German Historical Institute London 2019

 ‘Babylon in Storage: A Panel on the Backstage Areas of Museums’, Imperial and World History Seminar and Rethinking Modern Europe Seminar, organized and chaired by Mirjam Brusius, Institute for Historical Research, London 2018

‘Decolonizing Heritage and Public Spaces’, panel discussion, organized and chaired by Mirjam Brusius, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities/St Antony’s College Oxford, 2018

‘Tales from the Crypt: Museum Storage and Meaning’, workshop, co-organized with Kavita Singh, JNU, Indian-European Advanced Research Network, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2014

‘The Disciplined Past: Critical Reflections on the Study of the Middle East’, symposium, organized by Mirjam Brusius, Harvard University 2014