I had high hopes for the Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition at the British Museum. My PhD focuses on German nationalism and the debates on how to foster German national unity in the 1840s, leading up to the March Revolution of 1848. I was interested, even excited to see how the British Museum would construct an exhibition around ideas of memory and national identity, starting at the Holy Roman Empire and ending in the present day.
I am not the only one to have been disappointed. Ellen Pilsworth, a PhD student working on gender and nationalism in nineteenth-century Germany, has written on how the narrative of German history in the exhibition is wholly dominated by men, with women generally serving as symbols or objects of a male gaze instead of being the creators or actors. The exhibition follows a yawn-inducingly conventional view of German national history, focusing on high culture and a familiar litany of names such as Goethe, the Brothers Grimm and Bismarck. As Pilsworth rightly points out, “[i]t is a shame that the organisers did not take this opportunity to question the way we traditionally view history in general – as being the collected stories of a few well-educated and powerful men and what they said and did”.
Mark Hudson goes even further in his review of the exhibition for The Telegraph, calling it “an uneasy cross between a puff for post-reunification Germany and a clunkily old fashioned trawl through 600 years of the country’s history”.
He criticises the text that accompanies the objects of the exhibition for being unnecessarily simplistic or superficial to the point of actually causing offence. I was just as taken aback as Hudson by the offhand way in which the exhibition deals with Germany’s National Socialist past: the gates to Buchenwald concentration camp stand next to a caption solemnly intoning that they “pose an insoluble question for Germany and the world. There is no narrative that can encompass them.” This sentiment rings hollow when contrasted with the exhibition’s obvious attempts to show how Germany is actually doing wonderfully now, thank you very much: there is very little on the tensions that have arisen since 1990. Germany today has much to offer, but an awareness of the current political and social issues connected with its past should surely be part of that offering.
As a researcher of nationalism and national identity I found it particularly astonishing that an exhibition called ‘Memories of a Nation’ – as opposed to memories of a people, or of a country – failed at any point to discuss what a nation is, or whose memories were being presented and why. Although the exhibition talks about Germany as a constructed nation, it doesn’t try to reflect on how this nation is constructed, or consider the all-important fact that there is never only one nation or one set of memories; instead there are many competing ideas of a nation, drawn from different social and political groupings. There was also no mention of how the idea of nation changes over time; while the Holy Roman Empire was an important element in the development of German nationalism, it is wrong to assume that this was a nation in the same way that Germany is today. The impact of the French Revolution on the formation of liberal nationalism in Germany merits no discussion. In an explanation of how the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved Napoleon is merely called “an outsider”, with no reference to the wider historical context of the Napoleonic Era. The 1848 revolution broke out “across Europe in reaction to political and economic conditions”, but it doesn’t seem to matter what these conditions were. It leaves the layman feeling none the wiser about the all-important context to Germany’s development into a nation-state, and it leaves the researcher feeling frustrated and not a little insulted. The layman may not be ruffled by these omissions: but the fact remains that the exhibition could have engaged with German history in a relatively new and innovative way, and it chose not to. The exhibition at the British Museum serves as a crutch to Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series, when it could have been so much more.
It was also insulting to be told that certain objects represent the ‘shared memories’ of the Germans, when in reality they only represent the wealth and power of a particular section of society. As Ellen Pilsworth has observed, the exhibition quietly ignores the fact that these historical ‘memories’ are really only those of a select few, the wealthy and well-educated. The fine objects in the exhibition, such as the Strasbourg clock or the Holbein painting, would have been inaccessible to anyone of a lower social status at the time they were made; yet now they sit in an exhibition as proof of Germany’s shared cultural heritage. Despite the assured way in which the exhibition talks about Germany’s constructedness, it seems to fall for its own story: that objects representing the power and influence of their original owners can be co-opted into a narrative of a shared national culture, and tensions can be overwritten with confident assertions of national unity.
Germany: Memories of a Nation runs at the British Museum until 25th January 2015.