Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 2020
Blair Fowlkes-Childs and Michael Seymour, eds. The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East Exh. cat. New York and New Haven, CT: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2019. 332 pp.; 344 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781588396839)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 18–June 23, 2019
The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, installation view, detail of a column capital from the forecourt of the Great Temple of Petra, Jordan, late 1st century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019 (photograph by the author)

The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East at the Metropolitan Museum of Art aimed “to shift the focus away from the two imperial powers [Rome and Parthia] and towards cities and communities, focusing on culture and religion, regional and local issues, and even personal matters” between the first century BCE and the third century CE (iv). The exhibition also aimed to engage “with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.” These ambitious goals were explored through some 190 objects, from the Met’s collections as well as loans from Amman, Beirut, Berlin, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, London, Paris, Rome, and several US museums.

The exhibition curators are to be lauded in that they aimed to decentralize the idea of empire and focused on traditionally overlooked peoples. Yet the curators would probably agree that the field of ancient Middle Eastern art, as taught in US higher education, is currently on the verge of change. Given that The World between Empires presented antiquities from a region in which US military interventions have resulted in the deaths of so many innocent people, these issues are irrefutably intertwined and some issues cannot be made unseen. Working as a tour guide in Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum in spring 2003, when the US-led coalition illegally invaded Baghdad, I remember my (and all visitors’) anger and frustration as we discussed the consequences of the foreign occupation for the heritage in the region. Now, teaching undergraduate students in the United States who were born barely before the campaigns began in 2003, I am brought full circle. War is in the museum. The genocide is ongoing.

As I write this, Washington, DC, has called (once again) for a new generation of “Monuments Men” (New York Times, October 21, 2019); given the very public threats from the US State Department to attack Iranian sites in January 2020, one can only ask: is such a call for Monuments Men simply another new method for the US military to find new recruits? The Archaeological Institute of America has a history of recruiting scholars and students in the humanities for the US government. There is currently active military engagement in Syria and Yemen, two of the regions featured in the exhibition. The military complex has manifested itself in subtle ways through an ever-increasing presence in both museums and US academia (e.g., the so-called Minerva Research Initiative in 2008). In September 2014, then secretary of state John Kerry, who decades ago was an anti-war activist, addressed the “urgency” to preserve the heritage of Iraq and Syria. He praised the work of the American Schools of Oriental Research and confused the Iraqi and Syrian opposition coalitions while thanking the Roman emperor Augustus for his creativity, all while speaking in front of the Dendur Temple in the Met. Modern thinkers, often ahead of their time, have already formulated some responses related to these issues (see, for example, Wolfgang Muchitsch, ed., Does War Belong in Museums? The Representation of Violence in Exhibitions [Transcript Verlag, 2013]).

“What really matters is that we try to pressure the US government to give visas to scholars and colleagues so that they can participate in conferences with us, so that they come here.” These important words were spoken by Zainab Bahrani, professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University, at a symposium held in honor of The World between Empires in March 2019, both criticizing the travel ban recently imposed by the United States on seven countries and calling attention to the ongoing displacement of academics—in fact, a Syrian colleague scheduled to speak at that same conference was denied a visa to enter the country. This academic ban began with US economic sanctions against Iraqi citizens in the 1990s, intensified when removing the Iraqi government became official US policy within the framework of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, and led to a cultural cleansing of an entire generation of academic thinkers and intellectuals during the occupation and bombing campaigns since 2003, which culminated in the destruction of much of Iraq’s heritage (Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael, and Tareq Y. Ismael, eds., Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered [Pluto Press, 2009], cited only in a footnote in the exhibition catalog, 276).

Context matters in The World between Empires. According to Amnesty International, at least 1,600 civilians died in US-led coalition actions in Raqqa, Syria, in four months in 2017 alone. Many more innocent people lost their lives in Iraq and Yemen. Since neither Syrian nor Yemeni colleagues could attend the exhibition symposium, the show seemed almost a message to the people of the region—that the museum would continue to write their story for them. As people “in between”—such as the Baghdad-born Bahrani—these academics’ voices matter, especially in museum exhibitions that aim to present the destruction of heritage in current wars. Although the show included a video installation of interviews with Bahrani and her colleague and Syria expert Professor Michel Al-Maqdissi, who now works as a researcher at the Louvre, the information in both the exhibition and catalog was mostly the work of two scholars trained in academic institutions in the United States and UK.

An impressive group of twenty-one lenders, including institutions in Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, were mobilized. Palmyra and Dura Europos, two cities both in present-day Syria, were at the heart of the exhibition. Represented by fifty-six objects, their story was featured more than any other place “in between” empires. References to ancient military conflicts abounded early in the exhibition. A painted wooden shield from Dura Europos (cat. 133), which was exhibited at another New York City show in 2011 (Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos) and listed in the accompanying catalog in a chapter on “Art Historical Frontiers,” was displayed next to a graffito of a mounted lancer (cat. 134). Jargon such as “frontier” and the military connotation they carry have been increasingly used over the past two decades when discussing ancient Middle Eastern art. The head and torso of a cuirassed statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian from a museum in Jerusalem (cat. 61) had previously visited New York City in 1986. Fragments of alabaster funerary reliefs, a golden necklace, and a bronze rider from south Arabia (cats. 20, 22, 23, 25) were also displayed in the exhibition South Arabian Antiquities: The Wendell Phillips Collection at the Met in 1969. This 1969 exhibition, held in honor of an annual meeting of another US-based organization, the American Oriental Society, was a particularly interesting moment in time: after a British-led coalition dropped bombs on south Arabia, which included the region from which the objects on display originated, the British had left the area for good in 1967, and Yemenis gained political independence in 1970.

Mapping is perennially important in exhibitions. Geography is necessary in a time when very few US-educated people have even a basic understanding of the region: soldiers deployed to bring “stability” to these in-between places often need training from specialists. (In fact, one of the two exhibition curators participated in such training programs.) Competing interests of graphic designers calling for “clarity” are often in direct conflict with topographical mapping in installation designs. A giant gray map welcomed the visitor at the beginning of The World between Empires. Did mountains, valleys, or rivers separate the two empires? The visitor would not know, since the map’s gray colors would not allow for such orientation. Using beige walls with primarily limestone objects counters a basic concept in exhibition design involving contrasting objects and background space. Since I work on aspects of polychromies in ancient Middle Eastern cultures, my personal highlight was a decorative plaster from a room at Petra in Jordan with traces of paint preserved. Though it was not presented in the catalog, a modern polychrome reconstruction was crafted by Ueli Bellwald (“Forschungen am grossen Tempel von Petra,” Antike Welt 44, no 1, 2013: 44–54).

All the regions represented in The World between Empires have long been a playground for US exceptionalism. The no-longer-questioned business of “rescuing world heritage” has manifested itself in a growing heritage industrial complex. Following the Iraq invasion in 2003, the United States and its coalition partners used Babylon and Hatra, two sites featured in the exhibition, as military bases, yet none of the destruction caused by this imperial project was addressed in The World between Empires’s displays. Yet in 1999, Prudence Harper, then a curator at the Met, wrote: “With political, social, economic upheavals in the Near East . . . there has been a loss of research opportunities for Americans and consequently a contraction of the field in academic programs. The museum’s role is, therefore, particularly significant in maintaining an awareness of historical and cultural traditions in these war-torn and divided lands” (“Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,” in Beate Salje, ed., Vorderasiatiasche Museen: Gestern, Heute, Morgen; Eine Standortbestimmung, Zabern: 1999, 62).

How can a visitor trust an exhibition these days? What do objects excavated by American amateur explorer Wendell Phillips in south Arabia really have in common with objects excavated by another coalition spearheaded by American explorers in Dura Europos, Syria? Do exhibitions such as The World between Empires provide an artistic and cultural alibi, a justification for further imperial wars? Anyone will make their own conclusion, depending on which part of the spectrum of “in between” they stand. In the end, viewing The World between Empires felt a bit like reading vintage postcards written by visitors who admired the past without understanding the context of people living in those very spaces.

Alexander Nagel
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History and Museum Professions, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York