Pergamon Museum Action: Occupying Cultural Colonialism?

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin houses original, monumental buildings such as the Pergamon Altar and the Market Gate of Miletus, all relocated from Turkey. There is controversy over the legitimacy of the acquisition of the collection. It has been suggested — even demanded– that the collection be returned to Turkey. In fact, the KW Institute of Contemporary Art sponsored a piece called The Recovery of Discovery on this very issue. Sounds like the sort of thing Occupy Museums should look into.

Ishtar Gate from the Market Gate of Miletus, one of many Turkish landscape-sized pieces taken and deposited in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

But first there is a problem: the museum is not free. A few years ago, the museum had free Thursdays, but now everyday is an 18 Euro day. How can we bring 25 people into the museum at such a cost? School groups get in for free. The solution is obvious. We will found a university.

And so the first part of the Pergamon Museum Action comes into fruition. We found the Autonomous University of New York City. We send the museum a letter:

Subject: Urgent: Ancient Greek Studies Class visit
Dear Sirs/Madames,
Our Ancient Greek Studies Course will be visiting Berlin only for a short time in our travels through Europe. We would be very excited if you would accept our visit to Pergamon Museum. For our students in their present studies of the Ancient Greek Treasury it is mandatory for them to actually see the Pergamon Altar as it is so important the subject matter we cover.
We would appreciate your expediting of our request to visit Pergamon Museum on the 11th or alternatively on the 12th of June, 2012.
Autonomous University of NYC
contact address:
51 MacDougal Street
NYC, NY 10012
Tel:             646-436-7795

The Pergamon accepts. We make IDs. It is time for a field trip!

We enter the Pergamon Museum and begin studying the stolen artifacts. Like our action at the American Museum of Natural History, we begin with a tour: unobtrusive, conversational, inviting. Students gather on the steps of the Pergamon Altar. Class begins:

First, one of our professors teaches us a song in Ancient Greek. We join in the course: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit is fucked up.” Tourists start to take photos. They come in closer to see what is happening. Students begin sharing their research: museums artifacts are stolen as a matter of course from other countries and other cultures; art is part of colonialism; these relations continue in world politics today.

As the class proceeds, student presentations get louder, more disruptive. A pregnant woman gives birth to an Occupy Wall Street banner. Mic checks begin. Fliers are passed out. The guards look on, talk, but do not intervene. Perhaps because they have called the police, who will find us outside.

The Autonomous University class/Occupy Museums leaves the Pergamon Altar with the banner in a procession, chanting a hybrid OWS-Ancient Greek song. Once we leave, so do all the tourists. For the first time during opening hours, the Pergamon Altar is empty except for a lone guard at the top.

Outside, a small GA forms, and the following text is read:

Ceremony at the Pergamon Altar for Restitution of Art and Culture to the Commons!


There is a famous treasure in Berlin known as the Pergamon Altar. This giant relief sculpture from Ancient Greece depicts the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods known as the Gigantomachy. It was originally hewn from stone by workers from a culture that celebrated victory and ethics. In the late 19th century, the Pergamon Altar was displaced from its original site in present-day Turkey and brought to Museum Island in Berlin. Since then it has been used and abused as a symbol- a representation of power by both Germany and the USSR. The Pergamon Alter has come to symbolize the displacement and occupation of culture by the powerful elite. A call has been issued for its return to Turkey.


We are here to question and confront the issue of colonization and misappropriation of art and cultural heritage. We stand in solidarity with the Turkish population in Berlin suffering from gentrification. We will use the alter to bless victory for horizontality, sharing, and non-ownership.


On a personal note, the best part of this action for me is the “logical” conclusion to found a university to circumvent high museum admission prices. One could put work, time, and energy into fundraising or working for money to pay the museum, or one could put work, time and energy into establishing an educational institution so that museum objects are accessible to all of its students. I am always skeptical of the idea that education can fix social ills on a grand scale– yet the Autonomous University of New York did not function as a site for education, but as an institution that allowed a move away from privatization and towards putting culture into a commons.

The second part of the action raises more questions for me, and makes me uneasy. What does it mean for a group of activists, none of them Turkish, to re-appropriate an artifact in the name of inappropriate appropriation? How do tactics challenge or recreate what we criticize? What work does causing a fuss in a museum do? What are the terms of success for an action like this?

– Max L.

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