Tuesday, 26 May 2015

"It belongs in a museum". But... why?

"It belongs in a museum." No one has the same authority as iconic movie star archaeologist Indiana Jones, the heritage super hero par préférence, when he confronts the evil villains who want to sell off historic artifacts for profit. The options seem crystal clear. Evil and wrong: to sell off, destroy or utilise for one's own profit the material artifacts from human history. Good and right: to put same artifacts in a museum, thereby guaranteeing them eternal life and availability to all mankind of good will. Happy ending. Or..?

In my thesis, I am studying various theories on heritage and heritagisation, i.e. the process which transforms something in a living, active sphere of use to a historical object attached to a certain narrative and expected to never change. As mentioned in previous posts, death and fragmentising are parts of the process to build a new identity as a museum object; an identity that might contradict or prevent an identity as a living object playing a role in the world outside of the museum. The act of putting something in a museum, or give it a new context and narrative in a heritage context, is an act of power which can be used - deliberately or just as a consequence - to profoundly change things, places and phenomena in terms of use, availability and possible interpretations. 

With this in mind, I get nerdy goosebumps when a public call goes out to put things in museums, and my first question is: Why? Not at all in order to question the museums or the qualified work they perform, but to understand the driving forces and the agendas behind the musealisation - because they are manifold.
After the attack on satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, when twelve people were killed, one focus in the following debates was the role of religion in these events and in global terrorism in general. Social media exploded with opinions, while at the same time alarming news started to come from the war in Syria about strategic destruction of cultural heritage by the Islamic State. I did a random search on Twitter for the combination "religion" and "museum", just to listen in. The result was striking. Many voices called for religion to be put in a museum, but: for different reasons.
Heritage as a concept is in many aspects built on fear of loss and a sense of threat from outside, and therefore generates an urge to protect and save - a mission for which the museum is a seemingly optimal institution. Some voices on Twitter expressed a fear that religion was under threat and needed to be saved - but also a fear that ruining the material heritage would turn the religion itself into an artifact:

"My fear is that the Old Churches in Iraq are not destroyed but left to become ruins. Christianity left as a Museum religion, an artifact." (signature @AYoshia)

Others - the majority of the posts that matched my search - called for religion to be musealised in order to be separated from the living daily life, and instead become no more than a part of history and producer of artistic and other artifacts.

"Religion—no matter its form—needs to go the way of the museum. Another tragic case in point by way of Paris, France." (signature @SilvertongueCK3)

I found this most interesting, since a fundamental hypothesis for my PhD project is the domesticating role of heritagisation and musealisation of religion, and here it was: spot on! During my years working on this project, I have - with the narrow yet sharpened attention of a possessed geek - seen examples of heritagised and re-used religion everywhere: in museums, in cosmetic stores, in the streets, in commercials, in packaging for food, in theme parks, even in churches. If I may, let me share some of these impressions with you, to give some examples of the various fates of religion when entering new contexts.

One way to musealise religious artifacts is to place them in a museum (because they are outmoded, fragile, damaged or very rare and spectacular), but allow them to keep their religious status and narratives. This display can be seen in cathedral museums or, as here, in the diocese museum in Venice:

A musealised Jesus in Museo Diocesano, Venice. Worn and almost no distinguishable face, placed in a museum, but within a religious context and narrative.

Relic hand, Museo Diocesano, Venice

Life size statue of Virgin Mary, once belonging to a church and used for processions. 
Now in Museo Diocesano, Venice

A similar, yet quite different, approach and display could be seen in the temporary exhibition "Himlen är här" ("Heaven is here") in Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden. The exhibition was composed to celebrate the Archdiocese's 850th birthday, and to display the cultural heritage created, used and in some cases musealised through history and denominational changes and fashions. Using the cathedral itself as room for display provides a spectacular setting, but also (as with the headless Jesus) an ambiguity: museum or religion? Cultural or cultual use - or both..?

Medieval crucifix with contemporary neon sign, on temporary display over the main altar in Uppsala Cathedral.

A striking theme in this exhibition - as in many recent exhibitions on religious artifacts and matters in Sweden - is the recurrent exposure of backsides and parts originally not meant to be seen. I see this as  a deconstruction of the sacred, which is also evident in innovative and artistic designs of the exhibitions where original context and function are subordinate to stories and interpretations presumably more fitting for today's visitors.

Medieval crucifix on display in the central nave: backside clearly visible. 

Medieval saint, seemingly in a discussion with other saints standing around him, but also trapped in musealisation: glass case, iron band, and with his back and ownership label clearly displayed. Disenchantment, or a way to new understandings of sacred matter?

All at once! Altarpieces with panels for different times of the year and different feasts are often, as here, displayed with all the panels side by side. This is an efficient way to show the artwork to the visitor, but from a content point of view the experience for a visitor - originally taking place in weak light, during a religious service, in a time where pictures were rare - is quite different from the intended one, now that all days of the year occur at the same time.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which I have touched upon in a previous post, is yet another form of heritagised sacredness. Starting out as a byzantine church in 6th century, then turned into a mosque during the Ottoman rule, then converted into a museum in 1930's, and now subject to discussions of re-conversion to a mosque - something which has caused objections from Orthodox Christians claiming the building as originally theirs. Here, religion is - temporarily, at least - domesticated in the shape of a museum: a status which can, however, obviously be re-negotiated at any time.

Hagia Sofia museum, Istanbul

A recent visit to open air zoo Kolmårdens Djurpark in Sweden also brought some unexpected insights in the usefulness of religious images and artifacts. In the tiger park the theme was Buddhas in decay, seemingly to provide the frozen tigers and their northern viewers with an exotic framework among the Swedish pine trees. The decaying buddhas are an interesting topic in itself, as I have mentioned in a previous post, but I generally think that the decay as such gives an extra dimension of mysticism, heritage and even some kind of spirituality to many visitors.
A concrete Buddha head in fake decay among the tigers in a zoo in a Swedish forest. Kolmårdens Djurpark

Buddha figure and masks greeting the visitors who exit the funicular railway safari, Kolmårdens Djurpark.

Buddha head and constructed decay, Kolmårdens Djurpark

The Swedes' love for heritage and decay, in part perhaps explained by the luxury of living in peace and material wealth for a long period of time, is expressed also in the appreciation for ruined sacred matter. The worn and broken statues of saints, visible as art objects in museums in many parts of the world, are in Sweden equally used in churches for devotion - regardless of condition or lack of colors or limbs. Ruined churches are cherished as romantic, but even spiritual, places since the 18th century, and many couples who declare themselves to be non-religious still choose to get married, with or without a priest, in a church ruin. This brings up, again, the strong connection between heritage and religion - or, maybe, even heritage as religion, for a (post)secular time..?

St Catherine's church ruin, former Franciscan convent church. Visby, Gotland, Sweden.

While examining religion's (after)life as heritage, I can't resist to once again turn back to the Swedish Christmas gingerbreads (yes: gingerbread IS a big issue for Swedes. Just visit the IKEA store next to you from December 1st if you don't believe me!). The gingerbread men that mysteriously accompany St Lucy in the Lucia procession up here have no religious connection that I know of, but many of the cookie forms actually have either Christian or pagan origin. Here, the gingerbread version of St Stephen's horses (yes, I made them myself, along with space shuttles, dinosaurs, pagan sun symbols and giraffes. Life as a Swede.):

At the end of the recycling of religion food chain we find not only jewelry, t-shirts and toast stamps to make Virgin Mary miraculously appear on a toast (called: Holy Toast. What else?), but also Jesus as action hero, as band aids, and the magnetic set What Would Jesus Wear? (the latter in Uppsala Cathedral shop). Apart from expressing a sense of humor, whether shared by all or not, this also shows that the religious images have been fragmentised from their original context to such an extent that they have become aesthetic symbols - but charged and slightly forbidden to play with, and therefore useful for light provocations and humour.

Jesus' magnetic wardrobe, Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden.

Jesus heals - through bandaids. Uppsala Cathedral.

Loading all these images on my cerebral hard drive, I am left reflecting on many angles of my topic: Material sacredness, authenticity, and the Western understanding of material preservation (on which an interesting article was published in Financial Times recently); Musealisation of religion as blessing or hibernation; Is it easier to experience sacredness in decayed heritage than in sparkling new holy objects?
And, inevitably: what is the future for the Western European self-image and narratives, so essentially based on a Christian history? What role will be given to the religious heritage on display for a growing number of global tourists, and how will it serve and be relevant to a population becoming more and more religiously and culturally heterogenous? To me in my on-going PhD project, these are questions tightly linked to the future of museums in general and religion on display in particular. Preserving, saving or domesticating religion in museums, we still have to take into account that we are dealing with values of the past for some, but alive for others. A revised self-image, not least for Europe, is taking shape. Or, as Eddie Izzard brilliantly puts it:

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Holy headlessness. Beheading, death and various afterlives of sacred sculptures

Beheaded and mutilated medieval Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris

(An initial comment: Since I started planning this blog post on beheaded sacred images and their afterlives some weeks ago, recent events in Paris and other places in the world have brought the topic of violence, domestication and exercise of power under a religious label to a whole new and urgent level. I will not go into these events here at this point, but hope to return to them in the near future.)

I cannot think of a better topic for waking a resting blog, than resurrections and afterlives. Well, and some quite dramatic beheadings, of course - after all, I tend to end up reflecting on death every so often in this peculiar research topic of mine. As some of you might recall, It all started with a headless Jesus; my PhD journey took off when I encountered a headless Jesus in a Swedish cathedral, and couldn't make up my mind as to wether I regarded it primarily as a devotional, a historical or a cultural object. The broken state of this medieval sculpture is in no way unique in a Swedish context, but rather the normal condition. Worth noticing is that the present appearance of the medieval Catholic sculptures in Sweden is not a result of intentional mutilation or political violence, but of neglect in some church attic or shed after they came out of fashion (and, in some way, became dangerous) after the Reformation. With this, the Catholic sculptures were physically stowed away and out of sight, to be re-used as examples of a long history and proud national antiquities a century later in late 17th century. Seeing Catholic images presented like this creates an image of distance, of mysticism maybe, of historical pasts and beliefs, and of authenticity. The result, at least in Sweden, appears to be a sense of holiness and authenticity attached more strongly to these damaged images in a museum display or to a church ruin, than to sacred buildings and objects still in their original use.

Old and sacred matter the way I grew up seeing it in Sweden: broken, damaged and displayed museum objects with a narrative taking place in a time very long ago. (Gotlands Museum, Sweden)

When I recently took part in an international seminar at École du Louvre in Paris, on the musealisation of sacred buildings, I enthusiastically continued on this grim path, and learnt more about how the sacred images in France lost their heads.

Beheaded saints from the facade of Notre Dame de Paris, now in Musée National du Moyen-Âge.

Fact is, I was quite stunned by the ever-present and large number of beheaded saints and Marys that met me in various museums. In Musée National du Moyen-Âge were armies of saints ripped down from church facades, and individual sculptures with heads, hands and in some cases also their genitalia cut off. In other museums displaying religious art I met them too. Their headlessness is a result of the violent suppression of all forms of religion during the French revolution, primarily in the 1790's, when the churches were stripped of decoration and furniture, and the sacred art in many cases was mutilated or destroyed. The destruction here was violent, an act of dominance and an attempt to eradicate certain beliefs - and a jump start to musealisation of sacred objects and places. 

In the turmoil during the revolution, the sacred objects that were not destroyed were brought to Bibliothèque Nationale, which besides being a library at the time also functioned as a forerunner to Musée du Louvre. Objects made of precious metals were to be melted down for more useful purposes, and only objects of a certain "historical value" were to be spared. Thus, the heritagisation process in a nutshell: a quick shift from accentuating the sacred value to promoting (and, in fact, legitimizing the existence of an object with) the historical or heritage value.

Headless saint in a church museum in Angers

So, comparing the sacred headlessnesses in my own country with those in France, I find some major differences:

1) The heads in Sweden were almost always lost because of neglect after the Reformation, or because of popular beliefs that for example the wooden head of baby Jesus could ease the pain of a woman during childbirth if put in her bed (and sometimes didn't make it back to the church, or got lost, as loose details tend to do), but not in an act of religious or political violence. The heads in France, on the other hand, were intentionally and violently cut off to suppress and domesticate religion, and remove it from society in every shape but as historical and artistic artifacts.

2) In France these beheaded images are now on display in museums, telling stories about violent acts in the history of France, about religious beliefs and practices in the past, and about the artistic skills in various periods. I saw no beheaded saints in churches, used as devotional objects - but quite a few copies from the Viollet le Duc era in the 19th century. 
In Sweden however, as I have stated previously, even the beheaded images can be used for devotion and seen as sacred - perhaps even more sacred and authentic than the better preserved or recently made ones? There is something fishy about the secularized Swedes and decaying heritage... (OK, sorry. I can't keep myself from referring to this favorite scene in the film "Peter's friends", where an American actress expresses her admiration for the old English mansion and adds that she has seen something just like it in the States, "but brand new!". Look here, at 1.09...)

So, is this displaying of beheaded and mutilated sacredness, also with various agendas, something unique to Christianity? Well, you just have to take a quick look in interior decoration magazines and the fancy Buddha-heads-in-bookshelves (not seldom side by side with a Lourdes madonna) to realize that there is more to it than that.

Not only interior decorations, but also museums are filled with Buddhistic and other religious Asian art, often in fragments or damaged condition. I ask myself if the level of exoticism and aestheticism in these objects is higher, and the religious content less obvious, to a Western audience?

 Damaged Buddha at Musée Guimet, Paris

Visiting the Jim Thompson House Museum in Bangkok where an American collector and silk factory director assembled a group of Thai houses into a Western interpretation of typical Thai style, I was fascinated by the rich collection of Buddhas - many of which headless. I asked the tour guide how Thai Buddhists regarded these statues, and was told that damaged Buddhas are connected to bad luck and are therefore not to be kept at home. Being holy, they however can not be disposed of in a careless way, but are brought (back, in a way) to the temple, where a special room serves as a final resting place for damaged and used Buddhas. 

Intentionally beheaded Buddha at Jim Thompson House Museum, Bangkok

Buddhas, and more Buddhas, in Jim Thompson's house

In Jim Thompson's House Museum, the headless and damaged Buddhas seem to go well in line with the eclectic westernized assembly of Thai art objects and architecture, forming a magnificent and all new creation built on heritage and aesthetics. The presence of the damaged and beheaded Buddhas in a home might be unthinkable for a Buddhist believer, but in this home formed by a foreigner's eye, the damaged state poses no religious problem and goes well side by side with ancient pottery and other objects with patina.
Coming this far in the guided tour my curiosity on beheaded sacredness was triggered, and I asked the guide why the Buddhas were missing their heads? The answer was, in this case, neither the Swedish Lutheran neglect or the French revolutionary rage and domestication. The explanation was more one of greed and materiality: in connection to conflicts treasure hunters were after precious metals and valuable objects, and they had heard that some Buddha sculptures were made of gold and painted over. To check the presumed material preciousness of the Buddhas, they cut the heads off, and if (as in the case here) the material was a less precious one, the beheaded figure was left behind to meet another destiny: as museum or collector's object.

Buddha head on display, NSW Art Gallery, Sydney. Not a Buddhist display, but okay in a museum.

Travel Buddhas in the museum shop at Musée Guimet. Pick your favorite color, please!

Looking at these three examples from three different historical, cultural and religious contexts, we find three different motives behind the missing heads of sacred sculptures - religiously motivated neglect, political violence, and plundering - and three different kinds of afterlife: museum objects, a final rest in the temple, or resurrection as sacred object in mutilated state. While mutilation or damages in some cultures make the images impossible for sacred use, it rather seems to reinforce the sacred and authentic qualities in countries like my own. Heritage can, obviously, act as a new religion, creating meaning and traditions in a time where traditional religious institutions are regarded with suspicion and by some even claimed to have played out their role. From holy headlessness to holy heritage, perhaps..?

At the core of all this heritage, death and afterlife dwells the complex question of Eternity - a time frame set for many collections in another time, but which for many reasons seems quite problematic today. And to be honest (quoting one of my secular house gods, Freddie Mercury): Who wants to live forever?

Sometimes, I can't blame the escaped gargoyle in the facade of Notre Dame de Paris: it hit the road, leaving nothing but its paws behind. A pawless afterlife, and an escape from material sacredness...

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

I Wish You Were Here: The art of displaying a loss

OK, let it be said at once: This post is not a happy piece. It could be blamed on the season, including the beginning of Lent when mortality and vanity is the ever present narrative at least for church attendants, and when my fellow Scandinavians ask themselves and each other (between the sneezing, coughing and winter puking) why on earth they persist in living in this cold, dark and hostile part of the world. However, I will not choose that easy way out. I'd rather surrender to the fact that sometimes even my mind is grim and dull - a fact which probably explains the passion for my research topic, since it turns out to be permeated by death, loss, hopeless longing and nostalgic memories. Or, as crime novelist P D James put it in The Murder Room: 'Museums are about death'.

Skeleton on marble sign kindly reminding the bypassers in Via Giulia that they are mortal. Church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte, Rome.

Researcher Mark O'Neill argues that theories on death and dying are, in fact, crucial to understand the development of the museum institutions; museums, he says, respond to a need within all humans to plan for our own forthcoming death. Professor Owe Ronström elaborates on Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett when he writes (in my translation from Swedish) that

'All kinds of preservation efforts, all history recycling, all sorts of revival, presuppose and build upon disappearance and death. Remembering is a foreplay to forgetting; for the heritage industry it is not the memory but the oblivion that is central, since it is by forgotten and dead things that heritage is being produced.'

With this perspective, to which I relate in my dissertation, P D James has a point: Museums are, at least among other things, about death. So: what happens when death and oblivion become museum objects and subject to what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls 'the agency of display'?

Putting things on display is an active act of will: By pointing at something as being particularly interesting, the pointer performs a strong act of power - consciously or not. Avant-garde artist Piero Manzoni made this clear in his work 'Socle du Monde'/'Base of the World' (1961), where the seemingly upside-down base is actually putting the whole world on display as a piece of art. Pretentious - or a way to make the artist in the traditional sense obsolete.

In March 2001, the two gigantic standing Buddha statues in Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan were deliberately destroyed by Taliban, an act that was condemned internationally. After this, the valley was enrolled on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Though it should be made clear that the valley in question houses many other sites of interest as heritage and memory, it is somewhat interesting that the major piece on display - the Buddhas - for obvious reasons are not there. What is on display, and heritagised, is the memory and the void left after the destruction. This display can only be possible if a strong narrative is connected to the emptiness - a narrative constructed by someone, for a reason, and probably with certain spectators or visitors in mind.
One of the Bamiyan Buddhas before destruction...

...and after.

As previously stated, museums can be a way to deal with our own mortality and the temporary nature of this present life as we know it. This interest in death and in things, places and persons long since disappeared and gone - which varies quite dramatically in a global perspective, with different notions of materiality, time and space - seems to be linked to another strong driving force: The wish to replace, re-build, to heal the wounds and fix the broken. To undo what is done, paraphrasing that annoying yet blessed little key (and very philosophically tempting: what if, in real life..? But, alas: No.) on some computer keyboards. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the voids in Bamiyan valley were no longer completely empty, since an unofficial 'restoration' of the monument had been going on for some time. UNESCO intervened and stopped the unauthorized re-building of the sculptures, and debate was high within the heritage world on restoring, replacing, creating access and understanding for visitors, and preserving what was left of the materiality for coming generations. All highly interesting questions, and with - in my opinion - many possible answers.

Another example of death and preservation could be a genre in itself: Trees, Bushes, and Other plants. One of these is standing (though almost not) very near to where I presently stay in Rome and near the Bambin' Gesù hospital, namely the so-called Tasso's Oak. This tree was, according to legend, planted by Italian 16th century poet Torquato Tasso nearby the convent where he came to die. It has since then been subject to romantic paintings and poems, and is now a shell of what must be a very dead tree, but supported by iron beams and brick walls. The image of the remains of this poor tree saddens me a little, and brings forward the aspect of musealisation as a vain attempt to challenge and conquer death. I wonder how Tasso himself, crowned poet laureate and all, would perceive this living-yet-very-dead memory in his honor..?

 Tasso's Oak in Gianocolo Hill, Rome. Or rather: What's left of it.

Continuing the trail of trees and their painful departure and death, I have just started reading a book recommended to me by a friend who understands very well my fascination for displaying voids and nurturing memories of losses. The book by Italian writer Matteo Melchiorre bears the title Requiem per un albero, 'Requiem for a tree', and tells a story - or many stories - about how the removal of a very old tree, an alberón, and the remaining void and memories affect the local North East Italian community. It is a short and beautiful book, and I look forward to immersing myself in it for a while.

The losses and voids are not always physical and visible. However, to produce memory and lasting heritage, some kind of visuality is probably needed. A great example of this, in a terrible context, is the planned national monuments over the victims of extreme-right terrorist shootings in Utøya, Norway, in 2011. 77 persons were killed in the massacre, the most part teenagers attending a political summer camp on Utøya island. The question of how to commemorate this terrible event on behalf of the nation, in a way that can serve as a remembrance for coming generations but also as a place to remember and to mourn the persons who were killed, created a vivid national debate. Finally, an international contest was organised, and Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg won the competition to design the national memorial. His concept builds upon the perpetrator's having 'left a scar on humanity', which will be illustrated and remembered by cutting a 3,5 meters wide scar in the landscape near the island where the massacre took place.

(Pictures credit to Jonas Dahlberg studio)

The memory production of this deed of horror is highly material: apart from the already mentioned slit in the landscape, the names of the victims will be engraved in the stone wall created in the process. These names will be possible to read from a spectator place, but distant enough not to be reached - near and tactile, yet far away and unreachable. I find this concept most interesting from a memory production and heritagisation point of view.

Returning to the handling of death again, yet another aspect is the urge many of us seem to have, namely to build and correct the memory of ourselves - even while we are still in business and (should be) busy living that precious life. We are encouraged, professionally as well as personally, to mind our personal brand - how are we perceived by others, what is the narrative connected to our persona? A most boring notion of a person, in my opinion, and in desperate lack of respect for human complexity. This desire to design the memory of ourselves has deep roots in our society, though. A beautiful example might be Henry Purcell's interpretation in Dido and Aeneas. When Queen Dido enters the stake in despair after her beloved Aeneas's departure for new adventures (such as founding Rome), Purcell lets her perform an act of memory production in the last grim moments when facing death:

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.

Even in her last moments, the heroine Queen wishes to control not only her own end, but also the memory of her. Remember me!, she orders, but also: Forget my fate! In its shortness, a brilliant example of memory production, and of the subtle balance between memory and oblivion.

Angel of Grief, Protestant cemetery, Rome

Trying to wrap this up, I find myself thinking that another important - perhaps even crucial - ingredient in heritage production and museums is one connected to death, loss, memory and oblivion, namely: Longing. That force so desperately trying to bridge the gaps of time, space and even of death - how could memory production be possible without it? 
I cannot think of a better way to conclude all this, than with the aid of David Gilmour and Pink Floyd: I wish you were here.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Domesticating the Medusa

When working on a long-term creative project such as a PhD, it is fascinating (and also a little scary) to follow the winding trail of one's own thoughts: circling around shifting themes, digging deep in details that might prove useful (or not), drifting away, then drawn in towards the core of the problem again. It is a privilege, and an art to learn and - hopefully - master one day.

Recently, those untamable thoughts of mine have dwelled a lot on Domination and Domestication, and on Control and Power. And, as almost always, an image started it all... This time, it was a blessed moment in the Yerebatan Sarayi, the 6th century "underground palace" in Istanbul, perhaps better known as Justinian's water cistern. 

336 columns, water, fish and coolness: Subterranean Istanbul magic

In the early morning hours of the last day in Istanbul and the ISCH conference, I managed to see this underground kingdom of sweet water, fat fish, stone columns and historical stories and layers literally placed on top of each other. I was amazed by the beauty and the vastness, and by the ingenious idea of a subterranean lake and food supply, accessible through holes in the courtyards of the Byzantine and, later, Ottoman inhabitants in the city.
For those of you who have been there, you know that the typical signs for tourists about Things Of Importance That Must Not Be Missed were there, too - the kind of signs that, I must confess, always make me more curious about what strange and exciting things might dwell in the other direction. This time, however, the notion of Medusa and her petrifying gaze made me actually follow the signs to see the two Antique Medusa stone heads placed as column bases at the far end of the hall. This is what I saw:
Medusa's head, de-charged by not only being used as a column base but also - deliberately - turned upside down. Domination and domestication, hands-on style.

The information signs told me that the two Medusa heads dated from an earlier Classical period, that the reason for why they were used as column bases is a matter of discussion among researchers, but that everyone seem to agree that they were deliberately placed here and in this way, and probably as a way to control and domesticate them. This goes along very well with the ideas in my dissertation project, on heritagisation (in my case, of religion) as an act of control and domestication of the disturbing and dangerous. However, down there, in the cool silence below the busy city and facing the upside down faced domesticated Medusa, yet another dimension of this struggle for power and domination in historiography struck me. Medusa, being the most terrible of three mythological Gorgon sisters, and the one whose mere gaze had the power to petrify any human meeting it, could in fact be a metaphor for the heritagisation process as I perceive it: the beholder (i.e., the museum curator, the heritage bureaucrat, the historian, the tourist guide, etc) has the power - knowing it or not - to petrify living things, environments, immaterial customs etc, and turn them into well preserved heritage with a designed narrative attached to them. 
In Medusa's case, the hero Perseus outsmarted her and cut her head off, and then used it - with its' petrifying powers intact - as a weapon against his enemies before finally giving it to goddess Athena to wear it on her shield (quite a shield..!). In this way, one could say that Medusa's terrible petrification qualities not only worked as harmful, but also in a protective way, to save the hero from harm. Turning to the heritagisation parable, the most frequent arguments and debates in the heritage field are about exactly this: protection, saving, taking aside from the course of time and destruction, and for the sake of memory, humankind and eternity (a little generally put, perhaps, but still). So, using this image to think with, we are dealing with a most powerful process that functions both as a petrifying or even a lethal tool, but simultaneously as a life saver and a protection from time, aging and decay.

This for the Medusa and the petrifying gaze. But what about next layer, the urge to dominate and domesticate this strong power?

The taming of the Beast - recurrent motive in human narratives

The main field of my PhD project, the domestication of religion through heritagisation, is overflowing with motives and drastic actions to dominate and make harmless narratives and beliefs that have come (our were forced) out of fashion. In my Northern territories, the Medieval images are frequent of St. George (Sankt Göran) piercing the dragon - in various contexts representing the Danes or other enemies at the time - or the Norwegian king St. Olav (Sankt Olof), stepping firmly on his enemy's head (which in fact is the head of his heathen brother, in the shape of a half-monster).
St. Olav the Holy stepping on his heathen brother Harald. Tricky thing even for a saint, the Love thine brother...

Here in Rome the cultural layers are, as you know, many and complex - almost like one of my favorite Italian desserts, the Torta Millefoglie: 

Torta Millefoglie, 'Thousand layers' cake'. Divine.

Layer upon layer of history, materiality, narratives - but also of controlling, domesticating, silencing, triumphing, showing who is now in charge. The basilica of San Clemente, one of my favorite churches to visit in Rome, is an example of this multi-layered material history: A Mithras temple, then a Roman house where Christians met secretly, then a 4th century church, then the present Medieval basilica - all excavated and possible to visit. In this case, the perspective of domestication but also of religious and historical continuity is strongly connected to the place: the place itself is a bearer of values and permeated with spiritual charges.

The Mithraic temple below San Clemente's basilica

Returning to Istanbul, and to Hagia Sophia 6th century Cathedral-turned Mosque-turned museum (and now suggested to be turned Mosque again), the need to demonstrate new ideologies and domesticate - though not eradicate or erase - previous ones is more evident. Here, the crosses on the doors and in the mosaics have not been physically removed, but altered to become a non-religious element of decoration.

Altered cross on one of the entrance doors, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Altered mosaic cross, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Given the many and turbulent changes in the history of the city, mirrored in the changing regimes in Hagia Sophia (where the musealisation/heritagisation in 1934 forms an important chapter), it is interesting that so much of the previous layers are still there, and visible. The gigantic signs with Islamic verses is a dominant visual element in the interior of the building, but some Christian mosaics showing Mary and Jesus are also there and well preserved. And beneath the signs, the previous decorations can still be seen:

Cultural and religious layers, and a heritage preserving scaffolding, in Hagia Sophia

So, how to collect these meandering thoughts on domestication, death and preservation? Elaborating just a little more on the Medusa head in Istanbul, could it be that even the petrifying heritagisation process can be overruled - by something living, by a new power and regime? Continuing that line of thought, what will happen to the rapidly and globally increasing number of appointed heritage items and places and immaterial goods: are they really petrified forever, and saved from the ban of time and change, or can they be awakened again..? I have no answers to this, yet, and I hope you forgive me for letting you into this inner chamber of unfinished contemplations and unresolved problems. But please: feel free to contribute in the comment field below if you like!

For now, let's just remain another instant on this mind boggling topic, in the lucid company of Joni Mitchell and Taming the Tiger...