On 10 November 2020, the exhibition Iron Age – Europe without Borders opened at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition presents approximately 1,600 objects from the 1st millennium BC from an area stretching from the Atlantic and the Urals to the Caucasus, reflecting the cultural development of this epoch in a pan-European context. The focus is on some 750 objects from the collection of the Berlin Museum of Pre- and Early History that were brought to the Soviet Union as a result of the Second World War.
With the onset of perestroika, the indications that numerous objects believed to have been lost forever might have survived in Russian museums grew, and eventually the rumours proved to be true. In 1996, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow showed the exhibition The Treasure of Troy, and in 1998 the Hermitage and the Berlin Museum of Pre- and Early History founded their cooperation with the exhibition Schliemann – Petersburg – Troy.
It was quickly recognised that only cooperation between the museums of the two countries could lead to further reidentification of objects. One of the most important steps in the German–Russian cooperation was the exhibition Merovingian Period – Europe without Borders, for which the Berlin Museum and the Hermitage partnered with the Pushkin Museum and the Moscow State Historical Museum. The exhibition, which was shown in Moscow and St Petersburg in 2007-2008, set a trend of scientific collaboration between experts from German and Russian museums. A new chapter of cultural cooperation had been opened and it has continued to prove its significance with Bronze Age – Europe without Borders: 4th-1st millennium BC in 2013-2014 and the current Iron Age exhibitions.
The exhibition format allows museum professionals in Germany and Russia to work together, independent of any political issues surrounding the return of cultural assets. As a result, many important objects from the Berlin Museum of Pre- and Early History, which were relocated to Russia at the end of the Second World War and have been kept there since 1945, have returned to international scientific discourse and public view after more than 80 years. The extensive bilingual scholarly catalogues published to accompany the exhibitions are another essential part of this research.
In preparation for the exhibitions, the collections were documented photographically, and restoration and conservation measures carried out by Russian and German experts in mutual agreement. The entire exhibition concept was developed jointly and in close consultation. That the location and state of preservation of the objects are now known provides an essential basis for further work, and the contacts between the experts from Berlin and the Russian partner institutions makes an excellent starting point for future joint projects.
The exhibition Iron Age – Europe without Borders is divided into cultural-historical, chronological, and geographical sections. In addition to relics of largely unknown cultures, the exhibition focuses on the legacies of peoples such as the Celts, Etruscans, Scythians, and Sarmatians.
But what makes the exhibition unique is that it brings back together assemblages that were separated in 1945, when some objects were relocated to Russia while others remained in Berlin. One such assemblage comes from the site of Besseringen in Saarland, which is one of the early Celtic princely graves. Of the grave furnishings, the bronze chariot fittings are still in Berlin, while the bronze beaked flagon went to the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the gold necklace to the Pushkin Museum. This shows what absurd divisions the aftermath of the Second World War brought to the collections, but also how important the ongoing German–Russian dialogue and associated museum cooperation are, so that such objects can be reuinited and returned to public and research consciousness after so many decades.
TEXT: Hermann Parzinger, Präsident Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz; Manfred Nawroth, Senior curator Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Images: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und. Further information The exhibition will run at the State Hermitage, St Petersburg until 28 February 2021, and at the Moscow State Historical Museum from 15 April until 15 July 2021.