First displayed at the British Museum in 2014-2015 under the direction of Neil MacGregor, who is now on the advisory board for the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, this exhibition has now come to Berlin, where it has been re-titled 'The British View'.
The exhibition, through a display of around 200 objects, attempts to explore the memories that the objects embody, and to build up a varied picture of German history. Exploring cultural, artistic, political and economic themes, the exhibition creates a unique version of Germany’s story.
The venue of the exhibition itself seems to illustrate the complex and interlinked nature of Germany’s history. The Martin-Gropius-Bau is named after its architect, Martin Gropius, who was on the one hand a student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the most famous Prussian architect and painter, and on the other hand, the great-uncle of Walter Gropius, the architect world-renowned for founding the Bauhaus movement. Both of these figures feature heavily in the show.
Reproduction of Bauhaus cradle, distinct with its clear lines and bright block colours. Photo: TECTA Bruchhäuser & Drescher KG
The building itself stands opposite the 'Abgeordneten Haus', originally built to house the Prussian parliament, and next to the Topography of Terror, the museum about the Nazi terror regime, just metres from where the Berlin Wall used to stand. History is always complicated and intertwined, but, just considering the museum building itself, this seems especially true and evident in Germany.
Neil MacGregor wanted the exhibition to highlight this fluctuating and often contradictory nature of German history. In an interview with Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg published on Friday, he said: “In Weimar, there was Goethe, then there was Bauhaus […], and then there was Buchenwald. And, how is it possible that, in one town, in the very same town, these three aspects could all have taken place?”
Karl Bennert's 1842 copy of J.H.W. Tischbein's 1787 painting, Goethe in the Roman Campagna. Photo: Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Hoether-Museum © David Hall - ARTOTHEK
The Local spoke to an array of people, mostly German, who had been to the exhibition to hear their opinions.
Jeannette Kojiane, who is from Hawaii but has lived in Berlin since 1992, appreciated this approach: “How can you present Germany in a couple of rooms? I liked how they started with the fall of the Wall, and there were pieces of history, which were not strictly linear.”
Journalist Sabine Dultz of the Müncher Merkur on the other hand felt that the curators had missed out some essential elements, asking: "Where are the revolutions of 1848, 1918, the German Peasants’ War [1524-25]? The masses and the workers are not here.”
Equally, Hans and Barbara, a couple who divide their time between Lübeck and Berlin, felt that the exhibition could have reduced “the amount on the Holy Roman Empire, and include more on the Wilhelmine and National Socialist eras.” They nonetheless said that it was overall “a comprehensive display”.
Bringing together these varying views, Italian journalist Pierluigi Mennitti, who lives and works in Berlin, summarised that the “different states of Germany are so diverse” that everyone will see different aspects with different levels of significance. It is precisely because German identities are so diverse that a single historical narrative cannot satisfy everyone, he added.
When asked about how the exhibition impacted on her, Cornelia Müller, from Bavaria, replied: “I found that the exhibition reassured me as a German”, describing its perspective as "conciliatory and tolerant". Müller, who travelled to Berlin to see the exhibition, went on to commend the curator, stating that “he does not judge or condemn, but rather describes objectively.”
Whereas some visitors felt that the exhibition could have dedicated more time to the Nazi era and its atrocities, the majority felt that it was well balanced.
“I did not feel like it was trying to minimise the significance of the Holocaust or of World War Two, but putting it into more perspective,” said Koijane. “If you want to learn about that [in isolation], then you could go next door [to The Topography of Terror museum].”
Although the section on the persecution of the Jews is not particularly large, the central placement of the Buchenwald camp gate is clearly intentional. Located prominently in the middle of one of the corner rooms, it is visible from five rooms away, thus ensuring that visitors have it in their mind throughout much of the exhibit. Even when reading about the Holy Roman Empire, the inventions of printing and the automobile, or about Goethe and Meissen porcelain, the gate's visibility in the exhibition is a powerful symbol.
A replica of this gate from Buchenwald, with Bauhaus-style lettering, reading "Jedem das Seine" - "To each his due", is one of the most prominent displays in the exhibition. Photo: DPA
The final exhibit is Gerhard Richter's 1991 portrait Betty. The offset print depicts his daughter Betty with her head turned away from the viewer.
Visitors reacted very differently to the piece, but mostly agreed it was a significant work. Hans from Lübeck interpreted it as an optimistic piece. "She is looking into the future," he said, and his wife Barbara added that "it is a generational view: the artist is in the past but his daughter only looks forward." Cornelia Müller smiled, saying that she has always liked the piece: "For me, it is a peaceful work, and shows a woman's view. We always look back."
Gerhard Richter's Betty; offset print on board (Edition 23/25), 1991. Photo: Sammlung Olbricht © Atelier Gerhard Richter
The aspect of the exhibition that could perhaps be considered misleading was the show’s new name. The title “The British View” led many to expect a more specific perspective of the British people, rather than that of a single British historian.
"I was trying to work out why it is the British perspective," said Koijane. "I associate that more with 'don't mention the war'."
Mennitti felt that in this “post-Brexit” time, the term 'British' has new connotations, whereas Mrs Müller felt that it was more the view of a Weltbürger (citizen of the world).
Therefore, rather than visiting this show expecting to see “the British view”, one should view this new exhibition as a more international, modern perspective; one that views Germany as an ever-changing, evolving state, and its 600-year history covered here as a greatly varied, rich, and multifaceted story.
‘The British View: Germany – Memories of a Nation’ is display until January 9th 2017 in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße, Berlin.
By Alexander Johnstone