Pergamonmuseum — Museum für Islamische Kunst

Wednesday is not Museum Sunday. Nonetheless, having spent Sunday with Daniel and David, avoiding all museum visits (though plenty of talking thereof), today was the first day I had time, and having been entirely absent from museums since before Zürich, today it was. The Pergamonmuseum is one of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, so I got to use my Classic Plus Jahreskarte for the first time. Sadly no queues to jump, but the attendants seem more than usually smiley when I waved it in their presence.

I’ve been to a couple of museums with Dasniya; mostly though I go alone. Today was an exception being accompanied by David and his very own Jahreskarte. We met at the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which is a perfect précis of this museum: colossal archaeological ruins dissected and transported to Berlin during the golden age of colonial pilfering. It’s magnificent, as are many of the pieces in the museum, not a few wouldn’t have survived the 20th century were it not for that museum-establishing period when they were acquired — some didn’t anyway, destroyed or looted at the end of World War 2 — either way, a museum visit for me is often coloured by this unease and tension surrounding the origins of the exhibits, and the Pergamonmuseum more so than most.

No plans to see the whole museum though; this is one of those behemoths like Gemaldegalerie which butchers the viewer with size and quantity. I was here for the special exhibition of Indian miniatures, Genuss und Rausch. Wein, Tabak und Drogen in indischen Malereien. Eine Ausstellung im Buchkunstkabinett, and imagined if I had enough time, I’d see the Museum für Islamische Kunst. The miniatures appropriately took up two small rooms, with around thirty works from the 16th to 19th centuries, all of men and women drinking and smoking, wine and other alcohol, tobaco, hashish, opium. They are uniformly beautiful, and one of my favourite art forms (how could I resist the group high on opium and hunting rats?). Sadly they suffered from two museum-wide annoyances.

The audio guide, while comprehensive for the works that did have an accompaniment, was sparse to the point where whole series of rooms were absent and none for the miniatures (or did I miss something obvious?). Most of the works had no more than a description and date, with no way of locating the item meaningfully within a temporal, geographic, or cultural context, and with the preponderance of archaeological megafauna getting the audio attention, virtually all the small works, ceramics, jewellery, artefacts of daily life went past in silence.

Then there was the light. Works behind glass lost in a glare of reflection; glazed ceramics with harsh top-lighting blowing out the details in more reflected glare; other works completely unlit or dim to the point of obscurity, or in the case of a beautiful shadow puppet a hideous combination of the two. The Gemaldegalerie also suffered from this but here it reached a new level of horribleness.

Finished with the miniatures then, it was back through the carpets rooms, around the corner, past the Astrolabe, and back to the 7th century city of Samarra. Many rooms later, I fell into the small part of the wall of Qasr Mshatta, massive, more than 30 metres long and 5 high, it’s only a very small part of the original which formed a square 144 metres a side and reached more than 20 metres high in places. Each section is a repeating pattern of a zig-zag line with a rosette in each triangle, and each section is uniquely carved with vines, leaves, flowers, animals. Preceding this in other rooms, exquisite and delicate glassware that somehow managed to survive centuries unharmed, plates and bowls glazed with arabic calligraphy like abstract, minimal line work, vast prayer alcoves, everywhere the words, “lā ʾilāha ʾil ʾāllāh, muḥammadun rasūlu-llāh.” Past the Mshatta and back through the miniatures (as usual, not performing correct museum wandering), and arriving at carpets. From kilim prayer rugs to massive, wall-covering tapestry-resembling works of geometric and botanic repetition. More ceramics also. I realised I photograph the objects I intent to steal. The carpets especially; I’ve wanted to have one of those huge ones composed of large blocks of colour like the prayer rugs for my room, but suspect I’ll only ever enjoy them in a museum. Finally to the Aleppo-Zimmer, too big for me to purloin, but to spend a night there at the start of the 17th century …

All of which is a single floor of the Pergamonmuseum, and but one of the several on Museuminsel. I’m not sure whether to see the last third of Gemaldegalerie next or continue here, or perhaps suffer paralysis at the vastness of museums in Berlin.