Exhibition on Germany in the British Museum
Neil McGregor, the director of the British Museum, has a great talent to show historic processes condensed into handy pieces. It is quite a challenge to expose several hundred years of German history in the very limited space of just five small rooms on the upper floor of the museum’s exhibition area. The British public had been accustomed that German history was mainly happening between 1914 and 1945 – but the British Museum looked beyond that narrow timescale. But how can you tell the great variety and complexity of German history in form of 60 pieces ? The answer is: you cannot even do this with 6000 pieces, because you cannot exhibit history in all it’s ramifications. What a museum can do is to attract your attention by showing the entry point to a whole context. The exhibition is a teaser to become curious and to entangle you in a web of more and more questions. When you enter the great hall of the British Museum you immediately see a Volkswagen beetle from 1952 that became part of Germany’s image as a car producer. Upstairs you first enter a room where you see the videos from 1989 when the wall came down. It is the pictures that went around the world. German unification was fascinating many people at that time because history that seemed to be standing still in Europe started moving on again. But then in the second room there is a surprising question: what was once Germany, that today is no longer Germany? A few striking examples show that German borders were never very clearly defined. The first German University was in Prague in the 14th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam was professor at the German University of Basel, the university of Strasbourg formed important German intellectuals. In 1914 Germany bordered with Russia and Austria-Hungary. In 1945 German territory was reduced to what it is today. The visitors are attracted by the huge and compact rhinoceros made of china/porcelain by the Meissen manufacturerers who found out how to produce this white gold while desperately trying to make real gold out of dirt. You see a statue of Field Marshal Blücher who saved the Battle of Waterloo when Wellington was in danger to loose it. You see a Bible with notes from Luther who translated it, you see a Gutenberg Bible, the first ever printed work in Europe, and you see a painting showing the poet Goethe visiting Italy painted by Tischbein. A replica of the Imperial Crown symbolizes the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation. Dürers famous prints, especially Knight, Death and Devil stand for the flourishing arts in Germany. Several pieces show the great catastrophy of the thirty years war (1618-1648) that in some German regions killed more than half of the population. Where could Neil McGregor put the Nazi regime in the whole context ? This darkest part of German history comes near through moving paintings and prints of the victims of the atrocities. It is only a few pieces on this period, but in the context of the whole exhibition it inevitably poses the question: how could this long history with it’s tragic and glorious times end up in 1933-1945 in the most barbarious behaviour of the Germans ? An exhibition of this kind does not answer this question, but the context of several centuries makes the question more pressing – so it could also be a teaser to see the whole German history together, the best as well as the worst and to dive a bit deeper into the topics the exhibition can only introduce. Then comes the last 60 years – quite a long time, five times longer than the whole Nazi era – showing the Germany of the „Wirtschaftswunder“ and the new context of the cold war and later the contemporary united Germany. This part can only be very short and I hope that the pieces there may have a follow-up in getting curious for more and deeper interest in modern Germany.
It is true: the exhibition could touch on much more topics, the political history from the 1848 revolution, to the first ever Parliament elected by equal and secret vote of the whole male population in 1871, to the fact that women had ful,l voting right in the German democracy after 1919, and I could continue this by a very long list. But if one comes to the conclusion, that there should be more, then the exhibition has fulfilled it’s purpose: make the few pieces speak to you and ask for more. Thank you, Neil McGregor, for organising this wonderful exhibition.