Germany: Memories of a Nation – a promising exhibition that fails to deliver

Last week, I paid my (fairly obligatory) visit to the British Museum exhibition, “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, the accompaniment to Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series which I wrote about here.

Reaction to the exhibition has been mixed, often fairly critical. Charges are levelled against mundane objects with “large wodge[s] of text”, the cramped layout and the lack of female figures. My objection to the focus on elite figures and high culture in MacGregor’s radio series also applies to the exhibition.

At the sharp end of many reviews is the section dealing with the Holocaust – although there is a fair amount of praise for this bit too. Following several rooms of traditional, even old-fashioned, exhibiting techniques – old objects in glass cases with bits of explanatory text – you come to a large alcove whose walls are mostly blank. There’s a bench to sit on – the only one in the whole exhibition – and the white walls are broken only by a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp and two small segments of text.

Section on the Holocaust - British Museum exhibition - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Section on the Holocaust

You’re taken aback by the juxtaposition. The blankness after the artefact-filled displays of the previous room is unnerving. There are no words or objects that can guide you comfortably through this bit of history, it seems to say. And indeed, that’s exactly what it does say – the Holocaust “poses an insoluble question for Germany and the world”, we are told. “There is no narrative that can encompass it”. The text introducing the whole room reiterates this viewpoint. We read that the Nazis “left a dark memory that can be neither avoided nor adequately explained”.

The language is echoed in reviews praising the exhibition’s acknowledgement that this part of German history is indeed “unpalatable” and “unspeakable”. Such language, filled with negations – insoluble, neither/nor, no narrative, unpalatable, unspeakable – is now in common usage with regard to the Holocaust. I can understand its place in discussions regarding the emotional and personal engagement with the Nazi past that is faced by German individuals and the German nation – a struggle that has its very own German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Yet the task of an exhibition such as this is neither emotional nor personal but historiographical. And the events, ideological movements and widespread prejudices that led to the Nazi atrocities are explicable and can (and should) be discussed. To avoid doing so and instead simply offer a place to sit and reflect seems like a cop-out, a neat way to evade the perhaps even more unpalatable truth that this segment of the past can be “adequately explained” as part of a historical narrative.

There is a danger in suggesting, as this exhibition does both implicitly and explicitly, that this part of history is entirely different to the rest of it, that while the rest can be neatly manifested in an eclectic array of books and paintings, clocks and hats, silverware and wetsuits, the Holocaust can be manifested in neither object nor word.

This both allows the Nazi past to go unaddressed – and this exhibition was surely a great chance to present a more considered narrative than we are offered in popular novels and films – and undermines the complexities, nuances and suffering present in the rest of German history. Nearly half of the German states’ male population were killed during the Thirty Years War and villages that survived the marauding armies took a century to recover. The fluidity of national borders that once encompassed Kaliningrad, Prague and Strasbourg caused untold disruption, confusion and crises of identity. These human consequences remain concealed in an exhibition that focuses mainly on historical fact.

There is no denying that the Holocaust is a unique event in German history and its depiction in an exhibition deserves careful consideration. But the same could be said of most of German history, especially the parts thought worthy of a place in the British Museum. No part of Germany’s narrative (or the narrative of any nation) is free of complexities or controversy, and there is little that is free of emotional resonance.

Perhaps, then, we should confront the idea that no part of history can be explained by a numbered artefact and a paragraph of text. Most of us learn from a young age how to look at an old vase or piece of bone in a glass cabinet, skim some text and move on, our eyes glazing over as object follows object. What’s good about the Holocaust section – that it makes us stop and think – should be replicated in the whole exhibition. Although its technique of blankness and near silence might not be received too well among the fee-paying visitors.

The exhibition shop at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

The exhibition shop

The exhibition shop provided a final disappointment. Filled with sausage-eating, beer-drinking rubber ducks, dachshund cufflinks, VW campervan money boxes and 3D Neuschwanstein jigsaws, it reverts to and takes commercial advantage of customary stereotypes, none of which featured in the undeniably stimulating and stereotype-free exhibition.

Bavarian rubber ducks on sale at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Bavarian rubber ducks

It’s a shame that the final impression is one of kitschig beer mugs and plastic Beetles. The shop, like the exhibition, was ripe with potential to challenge conventional ideas about Germany with an exciting, thought-provoking narrative. In my view, both fail to deliver.