The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project
تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.
By Roman Singendonk (Curator, Museum for Islamic Art, Berlin, Germany)
The role that museums play in society has been constantly changing over the past decades, and now, more than ever, they are expected to serve society’s prosperity. In this respect, the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin has taken ‘migration’ and ‘diversity’ as its major contribution topics in light of the large numbers of Muslim migrants and their families who moved to Germany in the second half of the 20th century. The Museum houses objects that originated in the regions from whence many of those migrants came and, thus, has the obligation to shed light on the overwhelmingly enriching aspects of this cultural diversification.
One way to pursue that objective is through the third-party funded TAMAM project. It is a collaborative project that brings together volunteers from several mosque communities and museum staff of diverse disciplines, such as art history, visitors research and design, in order to develop multimedia educational material. The volunteers are mostly post-migrants of the second or third generation and support the mosques in their spare time, from participating in all kinds of hands-on activities to compiling proposals for youngsters, either religious or profane. The majority of mosques in Germany would not have persisted without these altruistic contributions because of structural deficits. Muslim communities from a very diverse range of the religious spectrum have been involved in the project; they belong to various denominations and levels of orthodoxy and have different nationalities.
The TAMAM project aims at opening up the museum and the mosques to new spaces of interactive learning. In this way, cultural education in the mosques is strengthened, and its institution is supported in its quest for public acceptance as a place of worship and education. The main narrative of these materials (exercises, videos, website and app) emphasizes the positive aspects of the historical liaisons between Islamicate regions and the rest of Europe, as it is evident in archeological objects and the fact that migration is not a crisis but a constant parameter of humankind. The project has been working towards integrating the materials developed into the curricula at mosques nationwide. For that purpose, training to enable volunteers to execute the exercises by themselves is provided.
Policy and public discourse in a growth-oriented social order often focus on the economy, a bias that affects everyone in the humanities today but is particularly felt by those working with arts and culture. Contrary to that perception, museums worldwide have started to reflect upon the role they play in society, as part of a system that perpetuates power imbalance, and the function they have therein. Their development reflects an awareness of how they do indeed matter and have self-consciously turned towards actively shaping societies in the way they assume is best. Museums are hence keen on changing the role they play and help in developing a progressive future.
What Difference Can Museums Make?
Museums, such as the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin, share the aim that is not exactly unambitious of fostering cultural education for a good part of society and, thereby, invigorating social peace. The approach of the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin is opening itself up to the diverse society of today’s Germany with a more interactive participation. People are invited to use the museum more than to just visit it (see Fig. 1). The museum’s educational programs focus on the entanglement of certain regions, groups and periods and on intercultural encounters that boost innovations and progress in science and technology, such as manufacturing raw materials or medical technology, as well as in arts and culture. Not to be misunderstood: Not all of these encounters were peaceful, and wars have destroyed connections, at least for a while. In fact, even in these acts of violence, goods and ideas have migrated. The approach of the museum feeds the argument that a sound understanding of history can help one to understand contemporary social procedures and shape the societies of the future. In this respect, the Museum for Islamic Art took up the increasingly problematic perception of migration and the presence of non-White people and religions, other than Christianity, that have recently spread throughout the Global North in general and in Germany in particular. This perception ranges from skeptical to hostile and finds expression in the growth of far-right political movements and the increasing number of hate crimes against non-White people. This is a trend that humanities should intervene to attenuate or even reverse it.
Potentials and Obstacles of Initiatives Like the TAMAM Project
It is important to state that the TAMAM project and other similar initiatives take effect in several directions as they try to affect the mosques and the museum. Both fields of activity and their requirements exceed the potential of a single project. Nevertheless, initiatives like those can instigate the processes of institutional reform or keep it moving. Regarding mosques, the limited resources of volunteers and the preoccupation of the management with other issues exacerbate the collaboration. The operational structures of mosques in Germany are precarious because, unlike with Christian and Jewish communities, they do not benefit from public patronage. In addition to that, controversy surrounds the objects in the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art which might partly contradict the self-images of Muslim religious communities today. Some objects promote cultural practices of which an orthodox understanding of Islam would disapprove. This applies to figurative art and, even more critically, alcohol consumption and the role of dance and music. Sometimes, the scope for compromise over the challenges was small but, in the end, a trustworthy relationship arose between participants from the diverse mosque communities and the museum staff (see Fig. 2).
Regarding the museum, the obstacles lie elsewhere but are not smaller. They can be found in the history of museums as institutions and the intellectual careers through which its staff pass. The academic traditions and the contexts of their emergence are tightly knit with unequal power relationships between the subjects and objects of these studies. Museums are certainly important shelters of knowledge, but they were constituted in times when colonies and racist attitudes were common and widely accepted. The colonial reality has shaped a certain part of the museums’ mindset and the academic disciplines that are to be found there. This ‘congenital defect’ continues to affect museums even today, and the critical occupation with one’s own past has developed into a whole new field of research. Critical awareness has arisen in recent years and, thanks to postcolonial and other critical theories, people have begun to understand the extent of the problem. The Eurocentric angle and the well-practiced unjust power relationships are, however, strongly fixed and have to be actively unlearned.
Consequently, TAMAM’s draft of the materials was confronted by what was suitable to say about certain objects, the history of the collection or the museum itself. Here, the participants became deeply engaged in the process of negotiation: What could be said without contaminating the institution? What could be communicated without degrading the mosques to mere decoration and without abusing them for public relations purposes?
How to Intervene in Public Discourse?
Various ways of intervention in public discourse exist, and all of them are tantamount and require a firm point of view. Which one is more suitable depends mostly on one’s profession and the institution with which one is working. Agents and scholars in a university environment, for example, who are mainly engaged in research, teaching and publishing, can initially rely on their courses and publications to address their students and readers. They can also found initiatives or support civil society movements with their expertise, and strive to become public intellectuals in order to influence the public debate by focusing on science communication.
Agents and scholars in cultural institutions, such as theaters, operas or museums, often interact with a slightly different type of audience. Whereas students constantly explore various topics and are engaged on a professional level, the audience in cultural institutions usually spends its leisure time there. Those so-called ‘outreach projects’ are sometimes meant to involve interest groups, such as seniors, refugees or – as in the example stated above – people who identify themselves as Muslims. Some of these groups can be referred to as nonusers or not-yet-users of cultural institutions, and the level of their commitment can be relatively low. The respective institutions are, however, expected to find feasible approaches in order to fulfill the claim of being agents of social progress.
Successful initiatives require participants who seriously get involved with the institution and are ready to challenge existing prejudices. The institutions are required to wholeheartedly embody this participatory approach while avoiding a paternalistic stance and the exploitation of their partners. ‘Eye-level’ is an in-vogue term, but it has to be acquired and cannot simply be claimed. The relevance of cultural institutions in postmodern times mainly depends on how capable they are of integrating diverse perspectives in interactive spaces where societal questions might be negotiated.
 Five levels of participation can be distinguished, and the collaborative level is the fourth out of the five. See Carmen Mörsch, “Wie wird vermittelt?”, Zeit für Vermittlung. An online publication of Kulturvermittlung, 2012, [accessed: 28.04.2021].
 This turn towards a more social-oriented Museum practice has occurred in different steps since World War II and can be observed around the world. For an overview of that development, see Mário Moutinho and Judite Primo, “Die Soziomuseologie und ihr theoretischer Bezugsrahmen”, in: Susanne Gesser, Nina Gorgus and Angela Jannelli (eds.), Das subjektive Museum: Partizipative Museumsarbeit zwischen Selbstvergewisserung und gesellschaftspolitischem Engagement, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2020, 27-44.
 Although museums of different types share many determining factors and capabilities, this text focuses on history and archeology museums.
 The origins of museums lie in the cabinets of curiosities at European royal courts. A large quantity of the objects in the collections were acquired during colonial times and in contexts of asymmetrical power relationships. That, first of all, does not apply to all types of museums but is certainly true of history or archeology museums and even more ethnological museums. A controversy led by a few activists and experts has found its way into the public sphere in the last few years: If and how objects in museums in the global north should be restituted to source communities? Government and museum officials in Germany only recently executed a declaration of intent that could result in the quick transfer of some of the most disputed objects in German museums – the so-called Benin bronzes. Some observers assume that this could also have an effect on the issue on a global scale. The full text of the declaration can be accessed on the official website of the German federal government, [accessed: 11.05.2021].
 Andrea Geier wrote about that aspect in this blog previously and addressed the issue of personal and structural requirements for that step. Cf. Andrea Geier, “Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance”, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 2021, [accessed: 30.04.2021].
Roman Singendonk graduated in Arabic studies, Islamic studies and political science at Freie Universität Berlin in 2013. He has worked at the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin, which houses one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Islamic Art, since 2015. He curates and is responsible for the MuseumsLab at the museum, an educational space inside the exhibition, where the museum experiments with new ways of communication, participation and representation. His research focuses on education and learning in a diverse society and the history of the collection and its provenance. In 2015, he established TAMAM, a participatory educational project with mosque communities all over Germany, and still runs it today.
This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.
Further articles in this series:
Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021
Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021
Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021
Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021
Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021
Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021
Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021
Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021
Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021
Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021
Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021
Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021
Citation: Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/29276, 24.06.2021
[…] For similar concerns at museums, see essays in this series by Roman Singendonk and Aisha […]