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The Military History Museum with its new annex
The museum facade was designed by Daniel LibeskindImage: DW/Arnold

The art of war

October 18, 2011

Dresden's Military History Museum has a new look and a new message. Rather than merely displaying artefacts, it delivers a provocative, interdisciplinary range of exhibitions on war and its social aftermath.


"War is an act of violence" stands on a screen above the entrance. It's a quotation that stems from military historian Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, recorded 200 years ago.

From the entryway, visitors step into a new exhibition hall designed by Daniel Libeskind. The star architect created a steel and concrete wedge as an annex to the existing museum building, which has housed German military collections since 1897. The location has been a mirror of the intervening eras, serving at different times as a royal arsenal collection, a Nazi museum and the army museum of the German Democratic Republic.

The modern renovations mark a break with history. Their intent is clear: The museum is moving away from the mere presentation of war equipment and toward multidimensionality. Questions about the social roots, effects and nuances of war are now at the core.

One exhibition that has drawn particular interest is a simulation of the wretched smell of the trenches during World War I - a mix of decaying flesh, dirt, sweat and gunpowder. The exhibition was created by acclaimed scent researcher and professor Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian based in Berlin.

Love, hate and war

Also exemplary for the museum's new orientation: A video installation titled "Love and Hate" by artist Charles Sandison meets visitors as soon as they pass through the crooked entry.

"'Loves' and 'hates' fight against each other, flowing across the walls and around doors, form themselves into human bodies, then explode. The basic questions of human existence are presented here," Alexander Georgi of the Military History Museum explained.

A cannon from 1511
The museum's original showpieces like this cannon from 1511 remain on displayImage: picture alliance/ZB

Other exhibitions seek to make the fear that war creates among both soldiers and civilians palpable. An installation simulates the drop of 23 bombs from various countries and times, which rain down from the ceiling on visitors. The mood is oppressive in the room, where a lone single-person bunker stands in the middle of the floor.

Another flash follows as the Hiroshima mushroom cloud lights up the wall. The visitors' shadows burn into the cold concrete for a few seconds.

The shape of a modern museum

The new Dresden Military History Museum covers a broad spectrum, from cultural history to art to multimedia displays that provoke and inform.

That's how a modern museum should be, said the institution's director, Colonel Matthias Rogg.

"We don't want to show classical war history. We want to show the military as one part of a state and society by presenting it in its economic, social, cultural and mental contexts," he said.

International stages of war find their place in the museum along with Germany's most horrible atrocity: the Holocaust. One display shows rows of shoes of people who were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

The museum's collection totals 10,000 objects, displayed across a 13,000-square-meter (140,000-square-foot) space. A complete tour of the four-story building leads through three long chronologically ordered epochs, reaching from the late Middle Ages to the devastation of the 20th-century world wars up through Germany's present day military and its current missions abroad.

The 'Love and Hate' video installation at the museum
A scene from the 'Love and Hate' installation dances across the wallsImage: DW/Arnold

"We would like to give people reason to think and show that military history can also be told in a different way," said Rogg.

A glimpse ahead

It's difficult to present all of the details of the German military's recent shift away from compulsory participation among young men to a completely volunteer army, said Rogg. Current military missions in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and in the Balkans are touched on in the museum.

An aerial view of the new museum
The 62-million-euro ($85-million) redesign took seven yearsImage: picture alliance/dpa

One room shows a tank that fell under fire in Afghanistan just a few years ago. Its three German occupants survived the Taliban attack.

The contemporary approach to the exhibitions may even help young people to develop an interest in joining the military.

"That would please us very much," said Colonel Rogg.

Author: Ronny Arnold / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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