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British Museum’s Germany exhibition

A thought-provoking selection of objects which reflect on the nature of modern Germany

No doubt there are some people, now that the British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition is open, who will say that a tax-payer-funded institution should not be glorifying a nation which has caused so much grief. I have two basic answers to that: 1) go and have a look at what Germany has given the world and 2) grow up and move on.

The exhibition’s timing is in fact little to do with the various war anniversaries this year, but more to mark the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, and the re-uniting of the two halves that now make up the latest manifestation of Germany.

This manifestation is, as the exhibition points out, just the latest of several. For most of its existence the nation’s borders have been fluid, and ‘Germany’ has been as much a state of mind, as a place. All sorts of cities and regions – Prague, Strasbourg, modern Kalinigrad – were Germanic in their time. It was a big region, and a lot of its present population was once-upon-a-time living somewhere else (as we have seen in a previous blog) before they were forcibly transplanted into a diminished state. Even today, it has more borders with neighbours than any other European country.

But back to the show. It is compact and thematically- rather than chronologically-organised, which can be fairly confusing, especially as the labelling of the themes is high up on the wall and not very visible. Above all it is a telling and eclectic selection of items, amongst which I particularly noticed:

  • The VW Beetle outside (in fact German cars are all about high value, so the Beetle was an exception, created in an era of austerity)
  • The extraordinarily detailed Strasbourg clock from 1589, with moving figures of Death and God playing out a mini drama every hour
  • The equally detailed galleon clock, a metal sailing ship that would roll across the table top, music playing and cannons firing, to mark the hour
  • The cut-out-and-keep sticker sheet of Hitler and German soldiers
  • The refugee cart in which displaced Germans from the likes of Silesia and the Sudetenland had to pack all their worldly goods
  • The replica Buchenwald gate, with the insignia Jedem das Seine, ‘to each his due’
  • The Angel of Güstrow, a giant suspended bronze statue whose face expresses deeply felt grief; the original was designated as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and melted down, but another cast survived
  • Memorabilia from the recent World Cup victory

Overall, it is a collection of objects which is intended to encourage ‘a rethink about Germany’, says the curator Barrie Cook. He describes the show as another milestone in a softening of attitude towards a nation for which, before the horrors of the 20th Century, was an object of admiration for British and Europeans.

I’m sure he’s right; the exhibition works well, but that’s not to say that there won’t be voices raised against it, from people who can’t forgive or forget.

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