11 September 2014

German Objects at the British Museum


This autumn the British Museum in London has a major exhibition called Germany: Memories of a Nation and BBC Radio 4 will have a matching 30-part radio series under the same title. The focus on Germany has been prompted by it being the 25-year anniversary of the Wende, but the exhibition and radio series have a wider scope than 1989 and instead range across some 600 years of objects that have been loaned by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. How is the history of a nation told differently through its objects, as opposed to its texts?  How do static objects negotiate the caesurae in German cultures? Which “Memories of a Nation” are invested in objects and which are not?

The British Museum has started tweeting pictures of individual exhibited objects as a foretaste. The prelude to this type of focus on objects and the collaboration with BBC Radio was Neil Macgregor's History of the World in 100 Objects, which ran in 2010. Having followed some of the programmes, I sketched out a re-vamp of the German Culture module that I was delivering to all our first-year students of German at the time, and played with the idea of turning it into a series of sessions focussing on selected objects. I made a list of objects and, like the current exhibition, included a piece of the Berlin Wall (my chunk is very small but I believe it's genuine as it's directly from someone who was a West Berlin school pupil in 1989). The main reasons why I didn't pursue this approach in the end were to do with the way that objects take you away from the language rather than into it. And also the way positioning objects on a timeline seemed to make culture collapse into a cliched chronology of origins. Anyway, what doesn't serve the studying of German as language and culture may work well for a public education project that has to function in English. Anything that alerts Britain to the complexity and diversity within German cultures should be a positive contribution.

25 August 2014

Publishing Poetry Research

The most conventional means of making public some poetry research is to write an article in an academic journal or a chapter in an edited book. Sometimes the book may be focussed on poetry research from a specific area; the journal almost always publishes vastly more on prose than on poetry. Both can sometimes be so slack with their interest in poetry than quoted lines of verse lose their correct layout somewhere in the process. If you’re lucky, you get to waste an entire day re-inserting line breaks into quotations in a final proof; if you’re unlucky, the final proof gets ransacked after the final author check and the article is published with the verse run on as prose, making a nonsense of your analysis. The semi-live spoken predecessor of both these written forms is usually the 25- to 30-minute conference paper.
Radio is a different way of publishing. I went to give a presentation to the BBC and they gave each academic speaker a 4-minute slot. What can anyone say in 4 minutes? Out went any nodding to sources, any evidencing of points, any discussion as such. Instead I chose two big loose ideas and two mini examples and that was my four minutes spent. In the event of making the programme that I had effectively been pitching that day, I got to record over 90 minutes of spoken comments. No script, nothing like a conference paper, no scaffolding, no poetry quotations; it was strangely different to any other way I’ve made public my poetry research in the past. The outcome will be cut together some time in the autumn by the editor to make a 30-minute programme and until then I’ll wait uncertainly to see what emerges. A bit of fun or a viable means of publishing? Who knows!