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.