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Interview with Beate Salje, Director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East

04.01.2011
Pergamonmuseum

For everything we've ever wanted to know about the Museum of the Ancient Near East... Director Beate Salje has the answers.

Who were the most important discoverers and excavators of the archaeological objects in your collection?

Well for a start, the architect Robert Koldewey, who worked ceaselessly from 1899 to 1917 in Babylon and who ranks as one of the pioneers of scientific field research. One member of his team, Walter Andrae, started the digs in Ashur which he later completed in 1914. In 1928 he was appointed director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East and it's him we have to thank for the visionary philosophy behind the museum's display strategy that continues to fascinate visitors today with its spectacular architectural reconstructions.

Is there an exhibit that particularly interests you more than any other?
What gets me excited is not an object itself, rather the way the objects depicting Mesopotamia's cultural history are displayed in Walter Andrae's overwhelming presentation which allows our visitors to submerge themselves in the world of the Ancient Near East.

In the Museum of the Ancient Near East we see many reconstructed opulent structures from the ancient city of Babylon. But what about the 'Tower of Babel'? Did it really exist?
Yes, the seven-storied square main temple to the God Marduk embodied the connection between humankind and the gods. Alexander the Great had it demolished with the intention of having a new tower erected in Babylon, his planned new residence in the east. His sudden death in Babylon meant that only the foundations and sections of the tower's core remained. They bear the same dimensions, 90 by 90 metres, as those of the tower mentioned in Cuneiform inscriptions.

What is the significance of the various animals and mythological creatures that one sees on the Processional Way and on the Ishtar Gate?
What you see here are recreations of the most important gods in the Babylonian view of the world: the lions on the Processional Way symbolise Ishtar, goddess of love and also of war, the bulls on the Ishtar Gate meanwhile symbolise the weather god, while the part-dragon creatures, called the mushhushshu, embody the highest deity and god of the city of Babylon, Marduk himself.

Give us one reason why nobody should not miss out paying a visit to the Museum of the Ancient Near East?
Well for one, because it is one of the largest museums of its kind anywhere in the world. The unique arrangement of architectural reconstructions, almost to original scale, creates an impressive experience for the museum visitor, of a kind unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

What changes will the renovation of the Pergamonmuseum mean for the Museum of the Ancient Near East?
In future, the monumental palace façade from Guzana/Tell Halaf will form the entrance to the Museum of the Ancient Near East from the fourth, glass-encased wing of the Pergamonmuseum. In addition, as an extension of the exhibition's depth, the museum will be able to present the cultural history of Mesopotamia and all its neighbours over all three floors covering the entire south wing. This will mean visitors get a much more detailed insight into this fascinating cultural history.

The interview first appeared in the National Museums' official newspaper (issue 1/2010).