Godela Weiss-Sussex, Senior Lecturer and Convenor of German Studies, Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR)
It all started when I attended a lecture given by Neil MacGregor about the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Germany: memories of a nation in January at Queen Mary College, University of London. I was inspired by his bold and perceptive approach to exhibiting German history and by the clarity of vision achieved by relying on the narrative power of objects. As soon as I came home, I sat down to write a long letter to him, suggesting that we at the Institute of Modern Languages Research could set up an event to complement the exhibition. I was convinced that language, and in particular literary texts, should have a place in this exhibition project, not only to complement the objects presented, but also to enhance their narratives.
Neil MacGregor put me in touch with the Museum’s Learning team, and we started to discuss how best to represent Dinggedichte within the exhibition public programme. Should we just collect existing texts on the exhibition’s themes and offer them as a reading? An extract from Goethe’s play Iphigenie auf Tauris might complement the Goethe portrait by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein in the exhibition: both emphasise the writer’s place in the classical tradition. Bertolt Brecht’s exile play Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) could add a further dimension to the significance of the refugee’s cart lent for the exhibition by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.
Of course, some of the exhibits coming to London this autumn have directly elicited literary texts: notably Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Der Schwebende, a bronze memorial to the dead of the First World War. The beautiful stark expressionist bronze sculpture, which hovers over the altar in the cathedral of the North German town of Güstrow (and in another copy in the Antoniterkirche in Cologne), has inspired numerous texts, poetic and discursive, including a ballad by the legendary East German singer Wolf Biermann. Banned from songwriting because of his oppositional stance, Biermann illegally recorded the ‘Barlach song‘ in the late 1960s, in which he refers to the climate of political repression as a time when ‘the angels fall to their death’.
All of these are fascinating texts – and they would lend themselves beautifully to a reading accompanying the exhibition. In the end, however, we decided that best of all would be to hear a whole variety of fresh, original and individual responses to the objects coming together for Germany: memories of a nation. This is when Cecile Reese of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) joined me to devise a Dinggedicht poetry-writing competition.
Dinggedichte (‘thing poems’), a particularly German form of poetry, are texts that zoom in on particular objects. The genre was pioneered by writers such as Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and others in the late 19th century, and then developed further in modernist writing of the early 20th century, most famously by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dinggedicht writer attempts to recreate the object in the medium of language and poetic form, and by doing so creates a new work of art. The poet may aim for an objective, distanced presentation of the object, or he/she may attempt to express the object’s essential nature by finding the language that is specific to the object and letting it ‘speak’ for itself. Of course, the writing of a Dinggedicht also implies a personal, subjective interpretation or reaction, and the object may spark off reflections that go well beyond its own particular shape or meaning.
This is what the competition is trying to do: to trigger these personal responses. All you need to do is choose an object featured in the exhibition and write a Dinggedicht of up to 250 words. Entries are accepted in either English or German, and there are some special prizes to be won. Please note that the deadline for entries is 14 November 2014. If you are unable to come to the British Museum and see the exhibition itself, you can still participate in the competition. Simply use one of the images shown on the British Museum website and exhibition blog, and let yourself be inspired. We would love to see as many poems as possible!
And finally, please save the date! On Friday 12 December, the Museum is hosting an exciting BM/PM evening of festivities inspired by German folk and folklore. As part of the programme, the winning entries will be read out and celebrated. In addition, Berlin author Annett Gröschner, whose work combines literary and historical approaches to German history and to iconic objects representing it, will read her own response to one of the objects in the exhibition.
So, get writing!
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is a German national agency for the support of international academic cooperation. DAAD supports students, researchers, and academics worldwide and plays a major role in promoting the German language at higher education level.
The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) is part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Its remit is to facilitate, initiate and promote dialogue and research for the Modern Languages Community.
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.