The Materiality of History: Object Diasporas, Museums, Circulation and Identity Politics

Posted: March 28, 2012 by sanahashmidts403 in Uncategorized

Above are pictures from my trip to the Harem in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The first image on the left is a re-creation of a Harem scene, with statues of women in the Harem meeting the queen mother. The following two images are the lounging areas of the Sultans (Mehmed II onwards).  Keeping in mind that the sofas, carpets and the building itself date back to the 15th century, it was truly an incredible experience looking at these historical artefacts. Despite the withering away of the sofa and the fading carpet print, I remember being amazed at the durability of these objects and their ability to transcend time and context to be in the present moment (I visited this palace right before this class started by the way).

I would like to incorporate the first two images from the Harem posted above into my reading response about objects in museums this week.  Firstly, the statues of the women in the first image speak to a type of recreation or reenactment of the past through objects. The object of the statues are not historically ‘authentic’ in that they are recreated in the present moment to illustrate a moment in the past. Unlike the carpet or the sofas in the next picture which are from the 15th C of the Ottoman Empire, the statues are recent creations. It is interesting to consider how ‘objects’ are used to re-enact historical moments, although they may not be from the period itself; I think that the statues are useful in speaking to the continued role of objects in navigating historical accounts in museums.  Although the statues and the carpets represent two different types of objects and their  fluidity and shifting role(s) as museum objects; I think the persistence of objects in historical representations in museums  counters Gurian Heuman’s argument about the importance of the  ‘soul’ of the museum versus the object.  He states; ” I believe the debate has missed the essential meaning (the soul, if you will) of the insitution that is the museum…[t]he following discussion will attempt to capture the soul by throwing light on the shifting role of museum objects over time. It will show how elusive objects are, even as they remain the central element  embedded within all defintions of museums” (Heuman 4). From the statues of the women from the Harem, one can see how the object continues to be a convential method through  which museums tell histories about the past, even if those objects are not from the time period, but merely re-presentations and re-creations constructed at a later date.

I was largely unimpressed with Catalani’s article on ‘Western Museums and the Creation of Non-Western Identity’.  I think a large part of my criticism has to do with the important issue  Mahmer raised in class about the distinction between ‘western’ and ‘non western’.  Through a further reading, I think this is even more problematic with the article speaking about ‘African’ artefacts in British museums and her classification of ‘African’ art in the category of ‘non-western’.  I think the author does a good job in illustrating the problems of ‘othering’ African art in British museums, and the issue of simply speaking to its aesthetic qualities and homogenizing Africa into one category. However, I feel that the classification of ‘ non western’ repeats many of those things listed as critcisms above.  My main issue with the seperation of ‘western’ and ‘nonwestern’ is namely that those identities are not mutually exclusive. Like Paul Gilroy argues in his essays on the ‘Black Atlantic’, the British transatlantic slave trade blurred the categories of British and African from the 17th century because of the brutal exchange of people and objects from Africa, and their undeniable presence in Britian in the present day. Hence, many forms of African art in British museums can be seen as both non-western and western at the same time.

I think the distinction between non-western and western in even more problematic in context of the pictures from Istanbul that I have posted above. As I mentioned in class, Istanbul is literally in between the continental plates of Europe and Asia.  Although the palace in Istanbul would have been classified in Orientalist discourse of the 18th-19th centuries as ‘Eastern’–along with current members of the European Union like France who refuse to include Turkey in the EU, the geographical, cultural, social and historical realites of the people of Istanbul suggest a more fluid identity between Europe and Asia. In the above photographs, you have an example of what would be a ‘non-western’ museum’, catering to ‘western’ constructs of identity about the East, i.e the Harem as a place signifying the Sultan’s ‘laziness and lounging’ and sexual exploits.   In this sense, I think objects in museums are not only fluid in their evocations of the present and the past, but also in their fluid breaking apart of the distinction between western and non western identities.


1) Why do you think that the Harem museum would recreate physical representations of the women that lived in the Harem? What is the relationship between orientalist fantasies of these women and their corresponding ‘objectifications’.

2) Above, I have listed some problems with the distincton between the terms ‘western’ and ‘non western’. In what ways can those distinctions also be useful?

  1. tupakkat says:

    Hey Sana,

    thanks for the pictures, they are really interesting. You comment about the age of the interior and its ability to transcend time struck me. Remember our discussion about how important objects are for the museum, if they are needed at all etc.? Maybe it is this durability that is one aspect of why we give so much importance to these objects, other than people they remain and link us to another time and age. By holding an object that is centuries old, we connect with that time in a way similar those people in the very first reading connected with status symbols and wealth of family members through their talk about it.

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