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Arts

What Neil MacGregor's exhibition on German history reveals about the Brits

The exhibition "Germany: Memories of a Nation" was designed for the British public, but it's now shown in Berlin. Although focusing on Germany's past, it offers some explanations on current issues - like Brexit.

It was initially an exhibition prepared for the British Museum in 2014 to go along with a BBC Radio 4 series and a book by Neil MacGregor titled "Germany: Memories of a Nation."

Now the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum has decided to show the exhibition in Berlin, creating an extra layer of dialogue between the UK and Germany. As the initiator of the concept, MacGregor is also a leading figure of cultural exchange between the two countries. The former director of the British Museum is now leading a new cultural history museum to open in Berlin, the Humboldt Forum.

Selecting objects that tell stories

Through some 200 objects, the exhibition explores 600 years of German history. If some of these exhibits were easier to pick out, it was nevertheless a tremendously long process to select the right ones. "We began by making an enormous list of what we already have in the British Museum. We probably have a couple million German objects there, mostly prints and coins," Barrie Cook, curator of the exhibition, told DW.

During a presentation of the exhibition to the press on Friday, Neil MacGregor said that the object that was the most difficult to select was the one that would stand for the Holocaust. They finally settled on the gate at the Buchenwald concentration camp, which infamously read "Jeder das Seine," a German proverb meaning "to each what he deserves." 

The lettering was created by a former Bauhaus student. Before then, the saying had a positive connotation, appearing for example in the title of a cantata by Bach. The location of the concentration camp itself, near Weimar, home of Germany's top intellectuals, also had a strong symbolism.  These multiple references to the richest aspects of Germany's culture also recall how deeply the Nazis degraded it. 

This contradiction is, according to MacGregor, "the most important question of the 20th century."

Deutschland Berlin - Der britische Kunsthistoriker Neil MacGregor im Martin Grobius Bau (Getty Images/AFP/A. Berry)

Barrie Cook, curator of the exhibition, Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Thomas Oberender, director of the Berliner Festspiele and British art historian Neil MacGregor present the exhibition 'The British View: Germany - Memories of a Nation'

Refugees of past and present

The organizers of the exhibition didn't want the Holocaust to overpower the rest of the show however, as it could easily have been the case, explained Cook. "The whole point is to give a context to the various different memories and the various legacies that Germany has," he added.

While the Nazi era is a well-known chapter of history in the UK, other aspects of Germany's past were completely unknown to the British visitors of the exhibition in 2014. For instance, MacGregor explained that the most important object for the British public was a hand wagon used by Germans expulsed from former German territories after World War II to carry their possessions. 

For the British, trying to imagine the 12 to 14 million Germans that had to leave their homes and resettle in Germany during that period would be "as if the whole of Australia were to come back to the UK," said MacGregor - an interesting way to revisit the current refugee crisis.

Fluid boundaries

"The importance of the lack of fixed boundaries in Germany was another aspect we wanted to explore; what that might mean in creating a sense of identity," curator Barrie Cook said. This German characteristic offers a fascinating contrast with the British situation, explained MacGregor, as natural boundaries were readily provided by their island.

The exhibition highlights four cities that no longer belong to the country to discuss the shifting historical boundaries of Germany: Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), Prague, Basel and Strasbourg. "There are bits of Germany that are gone now, but their history is still German. We thought we could talk about that, perhaps in a way that a German institution would find harder to address. There's no problem for Brits to say things like that."

Historical keys to understanding Brexit

MacGregor highlighted another stark contrast between the UK and Germany through a simple picture of the exhibition: Around 1700, German states had many different currencies, while Britain only had one - the British pound. Britain was always governed in a centralized way, and the German approach, with different governments ruling on federal states, is hard to conceive.  

"Much of what we are showing here - things like the political fragmentation of Germany, the habit of many different states, the habit of sharing power or not having one dominant capital - these are very strange things to a British person," said MacGregor.

Although the exhibition was conceived way before Brexit, MacGregor believes this contrast between the German and the British power structures highlighted by "Germany: Memories of a Nation" provides some explanations on the current events. "History shows that the division of power is unusual and frightening for the British," he said. 

The exhibition "The British View: Germany - Memories of a Nation" opens at the Martin-Gropius-Bau on October 8 and runs through January 9, 2017.

 

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