Exhibit Review, August 2006


Deutsche Geschichte in Bildern und Zeugnissen - Die Ständige Ausstellung des DHM im Zeughaus


Reviewed for H-German by H. Glenn Penny III
Department of History , University of Iowa

Productive Wonder in Berlin’s German Historical Museum

I visited Berlin for the first time as a graduate student in the summer of 1990. Like many tourists who came after the opening of the wall and during the negotiations toward a unified Germany, I was amazed to see how quickly the West appeared to be spreading into the East as I walked through Brandenburg Tor and down Unter den Linden. Without seeking it out, I soon wandered into the former Zeughaus, where I discovered the DDR’s now defunct Museum of German History. I was amazed. That museum presented me with a striking contrast to the narrative I had absorbed only a few hours earlier while visiting the Reichsstag and exploring the ostensibly 'temporary' display titled “Questions in German History.” It was largely the experience of visiting these two exhibits, set in such proximity to each other, and yet clearly worlds apart, that convinced me to focus my studies on German history. It was also this encounter that taught me how valuable museums can be as sources of historical analysis. Indeed, it encouraged me to harness them while working on my dissertation, and it inspired me to write my first empirical essay on the uses of the past in German history, which focused on the Museum of German History and its demise.[1]

It was, then, with great relief and a certain pleasure, that I visited the new permanent exhibition in the German Historical Museum this summer. It would be easy to criticize the displays. There is no clear-cut narrative. The treatment of critical moments and epochs in German history is often superficial, and the objects seem to overwhelm any effort at interpretation. The exhibit is meant to cover a span of 2000 years, but the attention given to different periods is hardly equitable: the 12 years of National Socialism, for example, gain as much space as the first 1200 years. There are technical problems. The English translations of the texts that accompany the displays appear inconsistently--sometimes they are there, and sometimes they are not. Many of the pull-out drawers are empty. One wonders why; is there more to come? And the organization might strike some visitors as haphazard. It is easy to miss the Enlightenment while walking through these displays--as well as the Inquisition, German colonialism, the lives of women in the Kaiserriech, and much more. The German colonial experience, for example, seems tucked away in a cabinet under a stairway. The curators’ self-proclaimed effort to Europeanize German history appears to come and go (European migrations yes, European antisemitism definitely, European Fascism--not so much). Political history plays an overwhelming role in the exhibit’s organization, leaving little room for everyday life; and yet the unification of East and West Germany seems to happen so quickly at the end of the two-millennial tour that one cannot help thinking that this bit of political history, along with so much else, was given short shrift.

Such pedestrian criticisms, however, miss the wonder of the displays. Indeed, this is an excellent exhibition that deserves great praise. The lack of a narrative structure is actually a great advantage (a point that Adolf Bastian, the founder of Berlin’s Völkerkunde museum in the late nineteenth century, argued with conviction). It allows visitors to seek out their own connections to and between the objects. It encourages them to think for themselves about how the materials and the moments they represent relate to each other. It requires them, in other words, to fashion their own narratives and, one suspects, to move beyond the museum and toward other sources of information as they do. By setting the museum up in this way, the curators have tried to present the public with a history driven less by ideology than recollection, illumination, consternation and elation. The museum’s exhibition thus functions as an inspiration to contemplation and edification rather than a vehicle for delivering a complete interpretation--something we all should appreciate and laud.

The exhibition begins much as its counterpart in the old Museum of German History began, by inviting visitors up the stairs to the left of the main entrance. While climbing those stairs, visitors glimpse mysterious people from the medieval period fading in and out of a wooded meadow, marked by numbers, one supposes, that archeologists placed on the ground during a dig. Upon reaching the top of the stairway, visitors are confronted with the Roman conquest of Western Europe around the birth of Christ. Archeological objects from Celtic and German tribes are intermixed with Roman artifacts, including a striking mosaic floor from Trier.

From this initial display, which is presented as the beginning of a long story about the history of “the German people,” visitors might try to move forward into the bulk of the exhibition, following a route through the displays on the right, which hugs the interior wall of the Zeughaus’s square shape. But few are likely to continue directly along that course. Most will quickly be distracted by the outstanding multimedia displays to the left. These include entire books from medieval German lands that have been recreated electronically and are available for visitors to browse in ways one could never do with the original texts. Visitors can flip through the pages and see the incredible images. They can read the original texts, choose to read the transcriptions of those texts in Latin, Hebrew, or Greek, or elect to scroll down the pages accompanied by their translation into German. The success of these displays was apparent to me, as I saw the crowds of people, often quite young, sitting for long periods with these electronic texts, engaging them in ways that would have pleased any teacher.

Moving back into the rest of the exhibition one finds that the a visitor can either hold to that central pathway that follows the right-hand wall past the displays or venture into any or all of the aisles, cul-de-sacs and round abouts that branch off to the left. It is possible, by following the numbered signs, to stick to a determined chronological path that moves meticulously from one display to the next and encompasses every object. But it is unlikely. It is easy to be distracted, to walk off course, and to find things like the collection of displays focused on the Germans and Spaniards who resisted Napoleon that few visitors will anticipate and many will easily overlook. It is through such misadventures among the displays that visitors are most likely to discover its treasures: the tremendous collections of armor and weapons, the immense portraits of well-know and some all but forgotten rulers, the various period rooms from the noble households, the collections of hunting materials, the displays on the emergence of city states, the computerized recreation of the castles along the Rhine, the Turkish tent captured following a siege of Vienna, the strange collection of sculpted beggars who found their own way through the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and the even stranger example of Waterloo teeth--dentures made with the teeth of at least one of that battle’s victims. Indeed, one finds all of these things and much more before leaving the first leg of the exhibition’s meandering path through the building.

The objects in this exhibition are well-selected, sometimes breathtaking, and generally effectively displayed. As a result, they manage to do things that books do only poorly. They attract the visitors’ attention, amusing and confounding, perplexing and enlightening, and most of all raising curiosity. In some ways, an inquisitive stroll through the exhibits could mimic historical transfomation much better than either a book or a guided tour through these displays. One sees many high points--the Thirty Years War, the spread of Christianity, the Napoleonic Wars, the rise and fall of religion as a primary organizing principle for European politics and societies, the transformative importance of industrialization and the brutal impact of the world wars are all hard to miss. And yet the explanations for these moments and movements require deeper probing.

In some cases, such as with the origins of World War I, the curators have taken a heavy hand and clearly integrated an explanatory narrative into the displays: this war was a multi-casual European conflict for which no particular state alone was to blame, and the impact of the war and its mismanagement led directly to the economic crises and political unrest that followed in Germany. For the most part, however, such explanatory narratives are absent and causality is not so clear. Much can be overlooked, for example, while moving from the early modern into the modern era (announced with bold headings as one moves past the events of the middle of the nineteenth century, and particularly the revolutions of 1848). Technology can grow in importance without any initial notion that there is a corresponding transformation in universities, science, banking, national and international laws and agreements. New things like steam engines and spinning machines appear, signaling a new era, but they appear rather abruptly, as one turns a corner or moves into a new section of the exhibit, and their origins often remain obscure even if a sense of their impact on the character of life in the German speaking lands and, after unification, the new German nation state, are readily apparent.

That is not such a bad thing. For example, the shocking appearance of technological advances may catch many visitors by surprise, but the lack of forewarning or explanation has a certain advantage. It makes these developments seem less natural and intuitive than they might if placed in a clear explanatory framework or historical narrative. That simple methodological move has great potential: it can reintroduce a productive degree of wonder into German pasts. Indeed, the curators’ unwillingness to press such events into a narrative, combined with their efforts to establish a chronological contextualization of each object viz-a-viz the other items on display, allows, indeed demands, that visitors seek out the explanations themselves (either among the museum’s exhibits or elsewhere).

It was refreshing, for instance, to see in one alcove the juxtaposition of images from the Crystal Palace, the first of the many world’s fairs in the nineteenth century, with displays on rising industrial strength, wide-spread immigration out of Germany, exploding social problems, and models of the new working-class tenements. Nearby are those tucked-away displays on the German colonial territories, which include Asia as well as Africa, examples of the many images of Bismarck and statements about his importance, material from the Dreyfus Affair and other evidence of growing European antisemitism. In the next alcove one finds brilliant materials from working-class movements and socialist banners, taken mostly from the old East German museum. The small display on Robert Koch that sits nearby is hard to find, and somewhat disappointing if one is, as I tend to be, interested in the history of science. But I suspect it would be easy to stumble across for people who know little about the revolution in medicine and hygiene during this period, are intrigued by the old microscopes, and after being drawn to them, learn something about what took place. The same might be said for other intriguing bits of the exhibition: they all gain their importance through the questions each visitor asks of them, questions unhindered by a narrative display.

Visitors’ tour of the top floor comes to an end with the displays on World War I, after which they are guided down the building’s other large staircase to the entry hall on the ground floor, and then into the final phase of the exhibition, focused on the bulk of the twentieth century. These displays begin with revolution and political struggles within the German state; they focus on the economic and political crises of the Weimar era and then quickly open up into overlapping spaces in which the friction between fascism and communism quickly gives way to a mixture of rising repression, racism, war fever, social opportunities, combat, resistance, destruction, mass death and occupation. The juxtaposition of personal and official letters, Nazi propaganda posters, photographs from the invasions of Poland and Russia, huge weapons, film clips of bombed out German cities, Mieczyslav Stobierski’s striking model of crematorium II in Auschwitz, paintings such as Felix Nussbaum’s self-portrait in hiding and the art supported by the Nazi state are both upsetting and invigorating. One does not simply move from economic depression to remilitarization to defeat, or from fascist ideology to racism, repression and the Holocaust. Here too the path is open, and the historical impulses and trajectories one detects by moving spontaneously from one object to the next are contradictory, unsettling, and thus telling. There are many paths through this history. And as one moves inevitably from rearmament to defeat and into the division of Germany, there are also multiple paths in that direction and many detours along the way as well. The same is true for the cold war era, which may strike some scholars as too brief. That brevity, of course, is one of the strengths (or limitations) of a museum that has embraced a longue durée and which reduces the history experienced by people in the present to a mere interlude. I suspect that move will continue to be hotly debated, but it did not bother me in the least.

There is a small guide to the exhibition, which can be read alongside the displays with some profit, but it explicitly denies any effort to do more than introduce the collections and provide visitors with the most minimal context and orientation among the objects.[2] It is not a pedagogical text, and there is little elucidation about the objects. Visitors will have to wait until the end of the year for a catalogue, but it is sure to be popular. The museum possesses over 800,000 paintings, graphic works, posters, documents, pieces of technical equipment, military objects, textiles and everyday objects and arts and crafts. There are over 500,000 images in the photo archive, 200,000 books in the library, and the staff are committed to further collecting. One suspects that the catalogue, like the exhibition, will be of great interest for laymen and scholars alike. I, for one, am looking forward to it.



[1]. H. Glenn Penny III, "The Museum für Deutsche Geschichte and German National Identity." Central European History 28 (1995): pp. 343-372.

[2]. Leonore Koschnick ed., German Historical Museum Berlin. German History in Pictures and Documents. Prestel Museum Guide ( Berlin, Prestel, 2006).