Sugar hammer from Afghanistan, early 20th century
At least two different primary school classes swarm around the entrance hall when we arrive at the Ethnological Museum. But, clutching their lunch boxes, they soon drift off to the Native Indian Exhibition. We are here to visit a new permanent exhibition with the promising title Muslim's Worlds.
The museum once organised four expeditions to Central Asia, and besides the Buddhist art work exhibited in the Indian museum, the explorers brought back a lot of everyday items. Finally some of the costumes, carpets, musical instruments, religious objects and veils can now be shown to curious visitors. But not all objects are from Central Asia, some of them come from countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Morocco. Most were new when the collectors acquired them, usually in the early 20th century.
“Spread over a total of 850 square metres in four exhibition rooms, 'Muslims' Worlds' takes a look at various topics that continue to play an important role in the way Muslims perceive themselves and others” the homepage states. To us the display appears a bit jumbled, the only connecting theme being “Muslim”. Most of the (not always accurate) descriptions read as if the exhibition was about one homogeneous Muslim culture spanning from Morocco to Indonesia. The explanations gravitate towards oversimplification and the assumption that Museum visitors have an attention span somewhat below that necessary for watching Sesame Street. As we are the sole visitors in this particular exhibition, we can't really comment on that, but admittedly the only other visitors to the Ethnological Museum were those groups of primary school children with their teachers.
In one room female faces flicker over a flat screen monitor, zooming in and out. Apparently they are pictures of women in the countries where the exhibited objects originated. "Women and Islam" proclaims the information board and lists some commonplace knowledge and a few clichés. Since all the collectors were men, the objects they brought home don't exactly cry for a focus on the life of women in those countries at that time, but an effort has been made to bring some female aspects to the exhibition. We bet every veil and every hair pin the museum owns is on display. Considering the role of women in Islam (or in Christianity, for that matter) may be a laudable topic, but in this context it appears quite forced.
We still found the exhibition worthwhile: Most of the objects on display are really beautiful on their own. Some of them, like a sugar hammer from Afghanistan, we saw for the first time. But unless this should be your first encounter with Islam and with Islamic art and culture you can skip most of the explanations.
Exhibition: Muslims' Worlds. Ethnologisches Museum, Museen Dahlem. Lansstraße 8 / Arnimalle 25, 14195 Berlin (Transport: U3 to Dahlem-Dorf). Tel. 030 - 266 42 42 42. Tue–Fri 10–18 h, Sat/Sun 11–18 h. 6 €.