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Germany: Qatari-funded Olympic exhibition in Berlin stirs controversy
A new exhibition on the history of the Olympic Games is set to open this summer in Berlin. But critics have raised doubts about the influence of the show's sponsor, the Emirate of Qatar.
An exhibition detailing the history of the Olympic Games is set to open this summer in Berlin. The show was intended to offer a critical perspective on the Games - that is, until Qatar stepped in to finance the project.
It all began with the Greeks, who gave the world the Olympic Games. They were due to lend an impressive 565 priceless objects, many of which have never previously left Greece, to the antiquity section of the show entitled "Olympia: Myth - Cult - Games." But then the Greek cultural foundation sponsoring the project ran into financial difficulties and the search was on for an alternative source of funding.
The vote decided upon the Emirate of Qatar. But the manner in which the voting took place has led to heavy disagreements.
A group of academics in Berlin led by professors Bernd Sösemann and Gunter Gebauer had already completed work on the conception and text for the part of the exhibition catalogue dealing with the history of the games in the modern period after 1896. In March last year, while the academics where still at work on the catalogue, the director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, Gereon Sievernich, took a trip to the Middle East.
While in Doha, Sievenich managed to persuade the head of the Olympic Museum in Qatar, Christian Wacker, to take on responsibility for the exhibition section covering the modern history of the games. "What a wonderful idea for Qatar to bring their exhibition to Berlin," Sievernich had said.
Critical perspective or plain flattery?
Not everyone shared Sievernich's excitement. The professors in Berlin who had consciously sought a critical perspective on issues like doping, the role of sport in totalitarian systems, the politicization of the games and boycotting, felt duped. Their contributions were no longer to appear in the exhibition catalogue.
Above all, the academics in Berlin feared the show would be reduced to a superficial marketing tool for the Games with which Qatar could gain favor with the International Olympic Committee. The Emirate is competing to host the Olympic Games in 2020 after successfully securing the privilege of hosting the soccer World Cup in 2022.
At a press conference in Berlin, such fears were not dispelled. The German archaeologist Christian Wacker, who formerly directed the Museum of Sport in Cologne and is now overseeing the construction of the Olympic Museum in Doha, promised that the problematic aspects of the Games would be covered in exhibition. But when pressed on the topic he remained remarkably vague: "We don't yet know how we will be presenting that, but it will go in a direction."
But which direction? If the program presented at the Berlin press conference is anything to go by, Qatar is planning to cover 29 Summer and 22 Winter Games. The talk also centered on costumes and merchandizing, "from crystal to porcelain, from caps, ties and towels to key-rings and matches with the Olympic emblem."
Difficult issues and critical reflection, however, were to be pushed aside in favor of a resplendent "Olympia Lite."
The power of investors
One might ask why Qatar should not be given the chance to provide their own perspective, for example, on events such as the Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936. But the suspicion remains that Qatar's involvement in the project has more to do with financial clout than academic competency.
Qatar conveniently stepped in to pick up the tab and secure the future of the show in the midst of the Greek economic crisis - but whoever is paying sets the agenda.
What is clear is that the Emirate is following its own interests. It would be naïve to view Qatar's involvement in the project in isolation from their bid to host the Olympics in 2020.
"We are observing Qatar as it becomes a big player in world sport," said Gunter Gebauer, a sports sociologist and philosopher at Berlin's Freie Universität. "We understand how Qatar gambled and probably also used bribes in order to secure their position as host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar is competing to become a major power. But it is a having a corrosive effect in world sport, because money corrupts morals."
The 2008 Summer Games took on a political element as well; some criticized the IOC's decision to hold the sporting event in China.
Setting a precedent?
At a press conference in Berlin, Qatar made clear their wish to be global leader in the field of exhibitions as well as major sporting events. The largest Olympic museum in the world is set to open its doors there within the next three to four years.
"We know exactly what we are doing and we are in a position to be able to offer content suitable to the general public," said Christian Wacker. He works with a team of 15 international experts, many of which, say Bernd Sösemann and Gunter Gebauer, have close links to the International Olympic Committee.
Many questions concerning the Martin-Gropius-Bau and the German exhibition culture remain open. The Gropius-Bau is financed exclusively from public funds and occasional international cooperations. But not everything is as transparent as Gereon Sievernich might suggest. A perfectly ordinary collaboration, such as one between the Centre Pompidou in Paris or the British Museum in London it is not. This is the first time that a foreign power has been directly involved in the conception of an exhibition, as well as dictating content.
What does this mean for the exhibition culture in Europe if other countries are also permitted install their own world view in public institutions such as the Gropius-Bau? The Qatari-financed Olympic exhibition could be setting a precedent. But for Gunter Gebauer this is a fatal sign of things to come - the sale of critical inquiry and academic rigor.
Author: Werner Bloch / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen
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