I’ve recently started to write online again for the Journal of the History of Ideas blog (where I’m also an editor) over at jhiblog.org. The post below was originally posted on January 19, 2015; visit the site to see additional comments.
Can a museum exhibition curate itself? So far as concerns history, the answer would seem to be not quite. Here I am referring to Neil MacGregor’s work at the British Museum, namely Germany: Memories of a Nation—A 600-year history in objects (2014-2015). The show builds on the earlier project A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), a popular radio-series and an accompanying book which draw upon the museum’s holdings. Plaques tied the latter series in to the permanent collection; the former, while also furnishing broadcasts and a book (if not quite an exhibition catalog), came into being as a proper show. The wide response to these projects hint that a trend might be afoot (at least so far as one-upping one hundred objects goes). Objects drawn from a nation or wider field might furnish their own sort of accessible—that is, quite literally concrete—stories of the most open-ended sort.
‘Narrative’ does not quite fit to describe this most basic, traditional tension in museum work. We can leave aside questions of selection, omission, contextualization, and even marketing for a moment. Where does a history told via objects exactly lead us—or what does it lead us past? A linear chronological arrangement or curation would prove hard-pressed to escape a simple progressive history of technology or, perhaps, a most interesting history of global exchanges. It would not give its viewers a material history per say of a country. The most heterogeneous collection drawing from the most disparate sources, regions, and times might also lend the illusion of encompassing inclusion. Yet this too would not quite amount to a social, economic, intellectual, cultural, gender, or even political history in the stricter terms used by historians. Rather, object-driven history allows its curators a neat side-stepping of these issues on the basis of its rhetoric. Cue rather more poetic language: there is a proliferation, constellation, converging, parallelizing, overlaying, implication, and so on of narratives. Far be it from curators to conspicuously impose a historical narrative themselves. (I hope our readers can chime in on the direction of museum studies today on just this note.)
This is a particular problem with German history. MacGregor and his team can be commended for the range of items they have selected for the exhibit. (Who ever knew about Goethite before?) The attention paid to the Trümmerfrauen seemed particularly deft in gauging their iconographic importance both in West and East Germany (see MacGregor’s broadcast here). I also grant a good deal of credit to any curators willing to display several maps and to dedicate cases to numismatics within exhibitions intended to be blockbusters. But the approach they chose only further complicates the history at hand. How easily can past historiography be dismissed when presenting German history to a general public?
The exhibit organizes itself upon the thesis that German history is “inherently fragmented.” Hence the (today de rigueur) ambiguity of the exhibition title: these are different memories of an “unstable” nation in geographical, historical, and political terms. For the exhibition’s curators, continuities and discontinuities frustrate strict chronological accounts. Accordingly, the chosen items readily fall under themes such as “Germans no more,” documenting German-communities in both the former East Prussia and Czechoslovakia for instance.
History as told by the objects, all the objects, and nothing but the objects obscures more than it reveals. In the absence of any chronology whatsoever, the thematic approach coupled with the impartiality promised by the items more often than not fails to invoke much history at all for those coming to it for the first time. For example, a cart used by East Prussian refugees in the wake of the Second World War strikes a touching note—but how well can we understand its importance without reference to the war and the present-day controversies surrounding the German Vertriebene (refugees or expelled persons—this problem of translation alone hints at the politics involved)? Or to broach an overwhelmingly large topic in as concise a manner as possible, just where does one place the Third Reich and the Holocaust in German history? A small exhibit dedicated to the gates of a concentration camp fails rather more than it even should. To my mind, the show ultimately amounts to a single history of Germany—albeit one defanged of difficulty or the need for much interpretation at all.
This is not a call for a museum rehearsal of professional historiographical debates or for a full-throated embrace of historical politics. We don’t need to refight the Sonderweg controversy. And indeed, I would here guess that the British Museum exhibit has been conceived as an implicit rejoinder to the overwhelmingly crass and politicized exhibit at the Louvre ostensibly dedicated to German art. Happily enough, however, some ready counterexamples come forward. The wonderful Time, Conflict, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern (with an excellent accompanying catalog) forgoes a strict chronology without leaving aside politics or more tightly-focused questions of national memory. (The exhibit’s focus on catastrophes and its ranging across several national histories affords another discussion, however.) More broadly-speaking, French museums such as those at Peronne or Caen prove models of involving such historians as Jay Winter (at the former) as curators themselves. The museum-going public rises to any perceived challenge that a more academic-driven historical exhibit might pose.
I look forward to writing here soon about another exhibit, La Collaboration 1940-1945 (about Vichy France), put on by the Archives Nationales. The questions there should prove just as substantial. But to return to the British museum and that ambiguous title once again, one stuck with me: just whose memories of which nation were to be seen there? I can’t help thinking that I and crowds of other people encountered a lot of objects, fewer memories—intact, accessible, or otherwise—and even less history in any graspable sense.