Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2427

German-fest exhibition that smashes stale stereotypes

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
The British Museum’s Memories of a Nation exhibition is a thought-provoking experience that looks at 600 years of German history, writes Sally Campbell
Issue 2427
The 1953 Volkswagen Beetle in the British Museum lobby
The 1953 Volkswagen Beetle in the British Museum lobby

The British Museum’s new exhibition presents a 600-year sweep of German history through objects. 

It’s tied in with Neil MacGregor’s 15 minute slots on  BBC Radio 4, which also brought us the similar History of the World in 100 Objects. 

Here one of Johann Gutenberg’s first printed bibles sits alongside the copy of Capital that Karl Marx gifted to the British Library. 

A fabulous gilded cuckoo clock from Strasbourg plays a hymn by Protestant reformer Martin Luther as Christ emerges to beat the devil (make sure you get there on the hour).

There are some striking portraits by early 16th century artist Hans Holbein, including A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

Its elements are thought to symbolise the trading relationship between England and the northern Germany’s Hanseatic cities. 

Before you enter, the first exhibit is a 1953 Volkswagen Beetle. 

It draws out the theme of German “nationhood”.

The idea for a “people’s car” came from Hitler. But the means to actually put it into production didn’t come until the post-war boom, boosted by US dollars.

Germany’s current borders have only been in place for 24 years, since reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The exhibition makes you think about how fluid borders are and how contested the notion of ­nationhood is.

Before the late 19th century there was no “Germany”, but rather German-speaking peoples living under various princes. 

Many of the fascinating innovations, objects and artworks on show here were produced in cities no longer part of Germany. 

Strasbourg is in France, Holbein worked in what is now Switzerland and Franz Kafka was one of the few remaining German speakers in Prague. 

The curators’ hearts lie with an ideal of a liberal democratic Germany.

It’s represented by its red, black and gold tricolour passing from the 1848 democratic revolution, through the Weimar Republic to today’s ­unified Germany.

But there are glimpses too of the revolutionary Germany of 1918 to 1923.

There’s also the Renaissance wood sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, who hid revolting peasants during the Peasant War of 1525.

The radical designs of the Bauhaus art movement that came 400 years later are also on show. 

It’s the thematic, rather than chronological, arrangement that forces you to think things through. 

The blurbs don’t do all the work for you—and this is a strength. 

In combination with the radio programme, this is a rewarding and thoughtful experience.

Germany: Memories of a Nation
The British Museum,
London WC1B 3DG.
Until 25 January 2015. 
Adult tickets £10, children free

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