Barrie Cook, exhibition curator, British Museum
Some exhibitions almost create themselves: the subject is distinctive and circumscribed, the narrative is relatively straightforward, the star objects practically move themselves into place. There is plenty of work, of course, but curatorially there is a clear vision. However, the exhibition that I have recently been working on, Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015), has been very different. The project of using objects to present the story of a modern European nation, how it views its present and its past, and how those views came to be formed, would always be a challenging one, but to attempt it for Germany, of all countries, could easily be thought impossible. Maybe ridiculous.
It is, of course impossible in the strictest sense. There are entire museums in Germany today devoted to telling the story of the nation, notably the German Historical Museum in Berlin (a generous lender to the exhibition) and the German National Museum in Nuremberg. How can one attempt the same thing in a single exhibition? Nevertheless, on the assumption that all such attempts are partial, a specific approach and a different perspective might perhaps offer something worthwhile. Whether this exhibition achieves this, is for course for the visitor to decide.
Our approach has been to take a cue from one of the many Germany-related anniversaries that have punctuated public awareness in 2014. The 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War has dominated, of course, with a reasonable amount of attention also on the impact of 1714, the Hanoverian succession. However, Germany: memories of a nation will begin with the anniversary of a much more recent event, one which many of us, if prodded, will remember. In November 1989, after weeks of protests, the East German government permitted free access to the West for its citizens and set Germany on the swift road to a unification that would be in place by the following October. The first object the visitor will see inside the exhibition itself will be a home-made placard from a demonstration in East Berlin: cut in the shape of the united Germany, coloured like the German flag and carrying the text: Wir sind ein Volk – we are one people.
The Germany on this placard, the one unification created in 1990, was a new Germany with new borders, a silhouette previously unknown to any historical atlas. How this Germany reflects, echoes and remembers older Germanies is the focus of the exhibition. Its geography is therefore much wider than that of modern Germany, in acknowledgement of centuries of frontier changes and the cultural consequences of these. The exhibition visits Basel and Strasbourg, Königsberg and Prague, when they were partly or wholly German cities. We look at the Strasbourg clock, a German speciality object made by a German craftsman working in a German-speaking city that plays – on the hour – a German hymn by Martin Luther. Could anything be more German?
Despite its geographic breadth, we still had to impose limits on the scope of the exhibition. We accepted early on that the coverage would go back no further than the 15th century, the age of Gutenberg, a man who arguably changed the world more than any other German. The oldest objects in the exhibition, therefore, are printed ones: a copy of the Gutenberg Bible among them, loaned by the British Library. Despite this chronological limitation, the range is still vast. Material produced by Martin Luther, Dürer, Goethe, Caspar David Friedrich and Käthe Kollwitz sits alongside the exquisite decorative and mechanical work of a host of engravers, goldsmiths and print-makers in materials that range from amber and gold to iron and paper.
The object selection in general was based on an assumption that most objects would be doing double duty, being attractive – or at least interesting – in themselves, but also making an additional point about German history, German culture and German identity. Sometimes a replica of an original object, rather than the original itself, could make an important contribution. The ancient crown of the Holy Roman Empire cannot by law leave Austria, but we were able to borrow a copy from Aachen made by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913 for an exhibition that was never held, an object that perhaps encapsulates modern Germany’s complex legacy.
Loans from Germany make a huge contribution to the exhibition. Not that the British Museum lacks material of its own: the German collections of Prints and Drawings and Coins and Medals are unrivalled outside Germany, while the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory also holds a wealth of material. The British Museum objects we will use are only the tip of one iceberg. However, the great individual treasures being loaned to us, some of them leaving Germany for the first time, will give a scope to the exhibition it would otherwise lack. Paintings from Berlin, Brunswick and Dresden allow us to address the role played by the German landscape in its sense of national identity; great wooden sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider offer an opportunity to think about religious and political life in Germany on the eve of the Protestant Reformation ; a porcelain rhinoceros from Dresden links Albrecht Dürer with German practical chemistry; evocative curiosities from the German Historical Museum give an unexpected view of Otto von Bismarck. Loans will bring us to the city of Weimar: to the study of Goethe, the classrooms of the Bauhaus – and to the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp.
Using objects to place the events of the early and mid-20th century in the context of this longer vista was always part of the project and was always going to be the hardest to achieve. How can there be balance in the face of genocide, crime and barbarism? Attempting this as an outsider has demonstrated to me just how hard it must be for a German.
Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.
Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September.