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Mediating archaeological research in the museum, based on the architectural traditions in the Sasanian and Islamic periods

Ctesiphon is located 32 km south of Baghdad, on the direct fringes of the old Seleucid capital of Seleucia. Under the Sasanians, the site, which was already populated in the Hellenistic period, grew to become the capital. The city fell to the Arabs in 637, who referred to it as al-Madā’en (the cities) due to the topography of the site. The ancient city of Ctesiphon initially remained the seat of a governor, but rapidly declined in importance after the founding of Baghdad (in 762 AD). The famous ruins of the great palace complex with the magnificent Iwan of Khosrau‎ (Tāq-e Kesrā) have, for centuries, remained embedded in the collective memory as an icon of ancient Iran. The iwan (the vaulted audience hall, walled on three sides and open at the fourth) became one of the most important features in the Islamic architectural vernacular.

The Museum für Islamische Kunst (E. Kühnel), the German Oriental Society (1928/29, E. Reuther) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1931/32) were involved in two excavations at the site in the 1920s and 1930s. They unearthed several iwans and stucco ornaments, as well as numerous other finds in houses from layers of occupation from the late Sasanian through the early Islamic periods. The stucco ornament laid the foundations for later stylistic developments in Samarra. Many of the stucco works are now found at the Museum für Islamische Kunst and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Current research projects

The project aims at replacing the objects into their context and at developing adequate communication strategies to mediate archaeological research to a broad audience. The ever more specialized nature of research, interdisciplinary methodologies, and the widely varied nature of findings require visitors to have an uncommonly good grounding in many disciplines for them to be able to make sense of the information gained as a result, which in turn makes the task of communicating such findings to an interested public even more difficult.

Using as a starting point the architectural fragments and other objects from the site currently held at the museum, the project will retrace the thread that leads from research conducted on the objects themselves to their mediation and display in the museum setting. A best-practice model highlighting the connection between research and the museum will be made using a concrete example.

A closely coordinated research programme will link the basic analysis of the material from the standpoint of the conservator with the question as to both its historical context (represented in simulations) and the search for how best to display the object in the museum, in a process involving an exhibition designer and a museum researcher. The goal is to devise an exhibition which not only places the objects on display but which also lays bare the background issues mentioned above.

Partners: Freie Universität Berlin, Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin, Brandenburgische Technische Universität (BTU Cottbus), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Project management: Prof. Dr. Bernhard Graf, Institut für Museumsforschung; Prof. M. Knaut from the programme in conservation and restoration programme at the HTW Berlin; Prof. D. Lengyel, BTU Cottbus; Dr. St. Weber, Director, Museum für Islamische Kunst
Project staff: Lori Steinmüller (conservator), Christine Gerbich (museum research associate), Youssef El-Khoury (historical building researcher)
Research associates: Dr. Jens Kröger, Head curator emeritus Museum für Islamische Kunst, PD Dr. Ute Franke, Deputy Director, Museum für Islamische Kunst, Stephanie Fischer, conservator, Museum für Islamische Kunst; C. Toulouse, BTU Cottbus 
Funding: DFG, Topoi Research Project C-3-6
Duration: November 2012 to 2016