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Museums are the diplomats of the 21st century

Why a show in Berlin of Tehran’s superb collection of Modern art is a crucial part of Germany’s foreign policy

by Andreas Gorgen  |  16.11.2016
Museums are the diplomats of the 21st century
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2nd R, SPD) looks at a Jackson Pollock painting during his visit to the  Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) in Teheran, Iran, 17 October 2015. Photo: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Imag
Andreas Görgen
Director-general for culture and communication, Federal Foreign Office, Berlin

The Modern art collection founded in Iran under the auspices of the last empress Farah Pahlavi before the 1979 revolution is travelling abroad. The collection, which is housed in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, includes paintings by Picasso, Rothko, Kandinsky, Pollock, Warhol and Bacon as well as many Iranian artists. It is to be shown at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin from 4 December (until 5 March 2017) before travelling to Rome.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz [Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation] in Berlin and Rome’s MaXXI museum are planning a large exhibition showing contemporary Western and Persian art, which opens in Berlin in December, and then will move on to Rome in April 2017.

This is the first time the Tehran collection will be exhibited outside Iran; showing such important pieces will certainly raise awareness, both in Europe and Iran, of the history these masterpieces share. The German Government’s commissioner for culture, Monika Gruetters, has welcomed this project as a “strong signal of cultural policies” and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs is happy to provide actual day-to-day support because we see in it a tremendous foreign policy opportunity. We believe that art has to be protected as an open, free space where different views can be expressed to counterbalance the simplifications of ideology and through which dialogue can be held with all partners, even those who do not share our values and world view.

Shared heritage

The reflective power of cultural policies stands for “shaping through understanding”—it is a strong platform upon which we can begin to build policy. As Germany’s international role has become more prominent, so has the push for a better delineated cultural strategy. The German Foreign Ministry, along with Parliament, is rising to the challenge with additional funding, new partnerships and enhanced global co-operation. Of course, cultural and educational work do not translate automatically into a peace dividend. And yet, in a conflict-driven world in search of a new order, these kinds of initiatives are indispensable as they provide real opportunities for better understanding between all the people involved.

Museums are at the vanguard of cultural work—they are the diplomats of the 21st century—particularly because exhibitions are more than just about the art on show. They can be used as a platform for dialogue and exchange, especially when working with challenging partners. Where Iran is concerned, there are some who may question if the time is right to move forward with this type of co-operation, and some may even take an open stand against these projects. Those opinions are important. We know this project may spark criticism, but that makes the attempt at conversation all the more necessary. Many of the paintings on loan from Tehran are part of Europe’s cultural heritage as well as Iran’s. By showing them in Berlin and Rome, we are sending a message of a shared cultural heritage to Iran and supporting the attempts at finding common ground we can build upon.

More generally, we believe it is important for countries to interact not only on the policy and trade level, but to create—and then support and protect—open spaces for culture, where civil society can participate in dialogue. Alongside our partners in Germany, such as the Goethe Institut and the German Academic Exchange Service, and in the US, including the Smithsonian Institution, we are working to connect societies through cultural and educational actions.

This is all about protecting those spaces outside the realm of politics in order to give people a way of understanding mindsets and models of perceptions prevalent within a society. This is why we foster projects with the Eastern partnership in countries such as Ukraine, engage in cultural and linguistic work in Saudi Arabia or negotiate an agreement on cultural co-operation with Cuba.

Crisis regions

Cultural and educational work has a crucial role to play, as does co-operation with civil society in other countries, especially in crisis regions. An example of our efforts is the Leadership for Syria programme, which provides educational scholarships for Syrian refugees in Germany. Another important example: in 2015, 20 organisations, including the German-Jordanian University, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the German Archaeological Institute, joined forces on the “Stunde Null” (New Start) project, which is preparing for reconstruction in Syria once the security situation allows for it. Even if this appears to be a distant prospect at the moment, it is important to work towards it by welcoming academics and students whose careers in Syria are interrupted by the war, or by working through the Goethe Institut Damascus in exile, which is now in Berlin.

Cultural relations and education policy are an indispensable part of foreign policy, particularly in difficult times and when collaborating with difficult partners.

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