Whose Memories? What Nation? A review of the British Museum exhibition, by Ellie Roberts

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.

Germany merchandise

Merchandise in the exhibition shop at the British Museum. Photo: Ellie Roberts

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.

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6 Responses to Whose Memories? What Nation? A review of the British Museum exhibition, by Ellie Roberts

  1. James C says:

    Great Blog Ellie – it appears from what you’ve said this exhibition highlights the UK’s somewhat strange obsession with Germany. Maybe the exhibition wasn’t brave enough to challenge our own perceptions and memories of Germany, would you agree?

    • elroberts says:

      Thanks! I agree. The exhibition was content to merely reproduce old stereotypes and ideas about Germany when it could have done something new and exciting. It’s a real shame.

  2. Ruthie says:

    Really interesting blog. I went to see this exhibition too with my boyfriend. I am a former German student while he is not and I found the whole thing a bit simplistic while he thought it was fascinating. Could part of the issue be that those of us who have studied German history know more and therefore expect more? I expected it to be a lot bigger, given the amount of Radio 4 and press coverage it has had. Plus, it had 600 years of history to cover! I can see your point that it is only covering the history of the wealthy but, as it was following Neil Macgregor’s history of objects, you have to wonder how many objects would have survived from 600 years ago that were not preserved by wealthy people. I suppose they could have made more of a focus on the last century or so but then I felt that that was one of the main issues in the exhibition. There was a definite imbalance in the amount of coverage given to different points in history. It seemed to skip from the 16th to the 19th century in the blink of an eye.

    • elroberts says:

      It seemed very underwhelming after all the coverage and the Radio 4 series. As Mark Hudson says in his review, it’s not obvious that the exhibition had a clear idea of who it should be for: there was an awful lot of text to process, but when you actually read it it was annoyingly superficial. My main problem is still the very lazy approach to nation and memory. Its whole premise is on the idea of shared memories, but then it’s dishonest in how it deals with that concept. I know that some objects are naturally more exciting than others but the exhibition could have been much more reflective in discussing how it chose objects and why. Looking at objects as historical artefacts is one thing, but weaving them into a narrative of national culture is quite another!

      I totally agree that it had a very slapdash approach to chronology. It could have just focused on the fall of the Wall and created a very interesting exhibition in the process, instead of a very patchy coverage of eras it clearly wasn’t interested in…

  3. elroberts says:

    Reblogged this on eloiseroberts's Blog and commented:
    My review of the Memories of a Nation exhibition at the British Museum.

  4. Richard Sewell says:

    I think the issue of expectations is key here – for the intelligent layman the radio broadcasts were a very good introduction to the complexities of the topic, but I share a certain disappointment that the exhibition itself was simply an alternative entry-point (perhaps there was an assumption that most would not have heard the radio broadcasts?) rather than a deeper analysis. All this being said, it was a ground-breaking exposé in both aural and visual terms and I suspect the book is where you’ll find the deeper view. The topic was, in essence, one man’s take, rather than a collegiate view and it stands/falls on those lines. NG’s view of Napoleon being essentially a destroyer of a German “nation” was perhaps revealed in the exhibit of his Waterloo hat, which struck me as irrelevant to the main theme, such as it was. Cognoscenti of German history may well be disappointed at the level of explanation, but should be perhaps pleased that it was set up at all? I agree with Ruthie that the actual size of the exhibition was a tad modest.

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