Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Museums as Diplomats

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 Gorgon, Museums are the diplomats of the 21st century, The Art Newspaper, 16 November 2016

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.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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