Guest Blogger: Conference report: ‘The Memory of Nations? New National Historical and Cultural Museums: Conceptions, Realizations and Expectations’

I am very happy to present a guest post from Mary Stevens, whom many of you will recognise as a regular Attic 'commenter'. Mary is a PhD student in the departments of French and Anthropology at UCL, researching the project for a national museum of
immigration (Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration) opening in France this summer. She has a BA in Modern History and Modern Languages(French) from Oxford University and an MA in Cultural Memory from the University of London (Institute of German and Romance Studies). She is particularly interested in how the museum of immigration is attempting to use public history as a tool to promote a more inclusive vision of national identity. An article about memories of the Algerian war in French museums is forthcoming in
museum and society (March 2007).

Last week Mary attended a conference in Berlin and has very kindly written a review of the event. Thanks Mary. :)

Conference report: ‘The Memory of Nations? New National Historical and Cultural Museums: Conceptions, Realizations and Expectations’
German Historical Museum, Berlin
14-16 March 2007

By Mary Stevens

The German Historical Museum in Berlin is an exceptionally suitable place for collective reflection on the long entanglement of the presentation of history with politics and power in national museums. The building, the oldest on Berlin’s historic ‘Under den Linden’, served as a weapons depot before becoming a military museum. It retained this function during the Nazi period before being converted by the communist authorities to tell the story of Germany from a Marxist-Leninist perspective. After reunification it was taken over by the Federal government. The on permanent exhibition German history opened in the summer of 2006.

Designing this exhibition entailed difficult choices. Germany itself is not yet 150 years old; should the museum show the history of the territories today known as Germany, or rather the history of the German peoples? And if so how should they be defined? Above all, how could the museum walk the tightrope between recognizing collective achievements and endorsing a potentially aggressive nationalism?

In order to address these questions the museum has engaged in sustained methodological reflection.[i] In particular it has sought to address the challenged presented by the work of German thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, who has argued that the nation-state is becoming increasingly obsolete. What place for national museums in the era of Beck’s post-national ‘second modernity’ ?

Beck, it should be noted, is more than a little ambivalent about museums[ii] and it is therefore perhaps apt that a central premise of these three days was that national history museums have rarely been in such good shape. After a welcome lecture on day one, day two focused on the national museums that emerged in the 1980s. Presentations from Te Papa in New Zealand, the National Museum of Australia and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa placed issues of bi- and multiculturalism at the centre of the discussions. Te Papa has pioneered forms of respectful, mutually empowering community engagement. However, questions were raised about the extent to which its community-based approach allows for the hybrid identities of many of today’s young New Zealanders. In this context it was interesting to hear how the National Museum of Australia is now looking to find ways to tell the national story by highlighting moments of encounter between the indigenous population and the wide range of settler communities, rather than showcasing difference. Museum histories, are always a matter of institutional choice, never raw ‘fact’.

It was easy to lose sight of this in the afternoon as we were taken on tour of the DHM’s vast (8000m2) permanent exhibition. Organised chronologically, a ‘fast track’ takes visitors past key moments, from which they can branch off to explore certain episodes in more depth. In our case the key moments were dictated by our guide, who, after a brief demonstration of the technology used for communicating medieval manuscripts, led us from great man to great man: Luther, Charles V, Frederick the Great, Napoleon…Where, I asked, were the little people? Where were the women? In response I was told, quite correctly, that the artefacts often hadn’t survived and that I should think of the exhibition as the story of German political history. Yet nowhere in the gallery is this made explicit. Moreover, the physical experience of an unbroken walk through time serves to naturalize this rigid linearity. Despite the reflexivity and scholarliness of its research in practice the DHM remains a teleological ‘modernist’ museum experience (even if the new narrative situates Germany firmly in the European context).

The museum visit contributed to my growing that Beck’s concept of ‘second modernity’ – characterized by a critical reflexivity and a non-linearity antithetical to the modernist museum – is in fact often being treated by museums (and their sponsors) more as a threat than as an opportunity. Whilst museums may talk the new museological talk, they may seek in a very traditional manner to counter the trends observed by Beck and affirm the nation’s continued centrality. Nowhere was this so apparent, or so disturbing, as in the presentation by the Director of the State Historical Museum in Moscow. Here the implicit dominant paradigm is not Beck but Fukuyama; the revival of nineteenth century bourgeois culture in the museum suggests the inevitability of the triumph of liberal democracy in the post-Soviet era. The future Museum of the History of Poland’s ‘history of freedom’ theme is similarly teleological. The Russian case is cause for much greater concern however; as Dr. Alexander I. Shurko told us cheerfully, one visitor enthused that the exhibition had given him a sense of the ‘greatness and might of the Russian people’. In a national context where many argue that ‘fascism is in fashion’[iii] such remarks should set alarm bells ringing.

Even in more established democracies museums are increasingly being seized upon as a tool in conservative identity politics. As Prof. Ronald de Leeuw, Director of the Rijkmuseum informed us, the government of the Netherlands is thinking of setting up a national history museum in order to reinforce a sense of national identity to address the ‘problem’ of immigration. In this context the presentation by Agnès Arquez-Roth from the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration (CNHI), France’s forthcoming national museum of immigration, was very refreshing (and not least because she was the only woman on the podium over three days). Rather than positing a nothing-but-the-facts neutrality, she acknowledged the museum’s ideological operation, in this instance in the service of questioning rather than reinforcing France’s dominant identity discourses.[iv]

The final round-table discussion between four journalists (in which the floor was not invited to participate) did include a degree of reflexivity, although mostly at meta-institutional level. What purpose do national museums serve? Is the desire to create a national history museum in fact a sign of ‘belatedness’ and of political immaturity? How should museums position themselves with regard to other media? What was lacking was a discussion of the knottier and more technical problem of narrative: how do museum chronologies act to reinforce a given ideology (such as Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis)? And above all how might we encourage visitors to also adopt a more critical attitude towards museum discourse, especially in national museums? It is not enough for professionals to gather and agonize over these questions if they do not also pass their conclusions on to their visitors. For unless national history museums encourage a shared reflexivity and a participative debate they will be reduced to offering little more than (potentially dangerous) ‘amnesia swaggering out in fancy-dress.’[v]

[i] See for example ed. Beier, Rosemarie, Geschictskultur in der Zweiten Moderne: heruasgegeben für das Deutsche historische Musuem von Rosemarie Beier (Historical culture in second modernity: edited for the DHM by Rosemarie Beier) (Frankfurt: Campus, 2000). Some of the essays in this volume are translated from English; others have not appeared elsewhere. Beier is a curator at the museum, as well as being an established academic who has published widely in historical and cultural theory.

[ii] See for example Ulrich Beck, ‘How not to become a museum piece’, British Journal of Sociology 56.3 (2005): 335-343. This article has nothing to do with museums directly; however, the idea of the museum is clearly negatively connoted in the title.

[iii] Anna Politkovskaya, ‘Fascism is in fashion’, The Guardian 17/03/2007 <>

[iv] The case for an explicitly ideological museum in the service of social justice is made by Richard Sandell in Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference (London: Routledge, 2006). Eric Gable and Richard Handler discuss the possible ideological implications of a just-the-facts discourse in The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1997).

[v] Patrick Wright, cited in Gaynor Kavanagh, ‘Melodrama, pantomime or portrayal? Representing ourselves and the British Past through Exhibitions in History Museums’ in ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell, Museum Studies: an Anthology of Contexts (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 348-55: 354.


Ceri said…
A very interesting and through review for which I have nothing to add! A great read.

Incidentally when I went to Berlin I went past the museum on the bus and thought it looked horrible with all weapons and armour incorporated into the facade. It would intimidate me from stepping inside.
Amy said…
Hi Mary, many thanks for your excellent report. I find it intriguing that the museum has been through many incarnations with the changing of each regime. It reminds me of those pre-Columbian sites in Mesoamerica which were appropriated by the Spanish for Christian worship, i.e. loci of spirituality and cultural identity 'reshaped' to serve the purposes of the new dominant power. And, also, a little like the removal of statues of communist icons post 1989 in the former Soviet and communist states in Eastern Europe (an act which in inself was a continuation of a 'tradition' enacted by the communist regime). I wonder, does retaining the building as a museum, but changing it's meaning, serve to psychologically cleanse the site of it's previous associations with the old, toppled regime?
Amy said…
And something else has just occurred to me. At the first meeting of our new Interpretation/Representation research group yesterday evening, we had a really good discussion about the politics of display and linear v. multilinear/multi-vocal histories. The museum here appears to have fallen into that modernist trap of trying to assert a single linear vision of history which fits the post-Communist identity, but ignores, like you say, 'the little people', the experience of the individual. Thought provoking stuff... :)
Amy said…
Which is exactly what you go on to say! That'll teach me for hammering out comments before I read to the end of the post! ;)
Mary said…
Thanks for your comments. Ceri - I agree with you about the weapons and indeed one of the museum's problems in creating a new exhibition was that so much of its collection was armoury, which obviously lends itself to a certain sort of account (not that this is made apparent anywhere in the exhibition). And whilst I agree with Amy that its interesting that the site has been through so many incarnations I'd be inclined to argue provocatively that there's actually a strong continuity in the way its been used. After all, it's not such a leap from war trophies to a national museum. A counter example is the French museum of immigration - originally a palace of the colonies. But then thinking about it, its detractors are inclined to see continuity here too...

The issue of linearity v. multilinearity is a fascinating and difficult one. One of the things that came out of the National Museum of Australia's review was that visitors found its multlinearity confusing and alienating. Its very hard to find ways to put this theory into practice, it seems to me. Though that's not in my view an excuse for not trying! I'd be interested to know of history exhibitions where it's really been seen as a success. Any ideas??
Ceri said…
An interesting question... I think the issue is that we are so used to thinking about history as linear and having a definiable narrative that any attempt to change that will result in visitor's feeling alienated because they are not used to it. History is always (to my knowledge) at school presented as progress, usually through technology and social developments, so any attempt to offer and alternative jars with one of our most cherished beliefs. Witness the collapse of any society / political system and we immediately talk about it going 'backwards' or turning to 'chaos' rather than it being another stage in its history. Hence why our most enduring images of the past are it being 'worse' than now because they did not have the material benefits we have now... unless you are nostalgic for a more 'simple' age but again that still sees the past as a 'deficit.'

Visiting the Museum of London and its new Medievial galleries they have taken an approach which dispensed with the usual 'linear' progression through history in the sense that it was not immediately clear to visitors that there was a way around the exhibition in a clear chronological order. Instead the 'middle ages' are organised around several events which the Museum has picked out as being important; the re-foundation of London after the Roman Empire collapsed; the Black Death and the Reformation of the Catholic Church being deemed to be significant. Visitors were supposed to follow through in a certain path but this was not clear and so you could find yourself viewing clothes and objects from the 13th century and wondering what had happened to the Norman Conquest of 1066 (which is not even mentioned at all in the exhibition). Therefore following visitor consultation the museum had reluctantly put up before entry to the gallery a timeline of significant events because this was one thing that visitors valued - knowing their 'place' in time and how that relates to the Middle Ages. Again this proves that education - which privileges the timeline and linear progression - is valued more highly by visitors because it is something they relate to and understand.
Amy said…
I can see some similarities between these examples and what Frank (sorry Frank - stealing your thunder here!) was saying about the Tate Modern rehang the other night at our research group meeting, i.e. the backlash against what was seen to be the 'trendy' thematic approach to interpreting art history, and the favoured chronological approach. Personally I loved the themed rooms, and felt they really added to the experience of viewing the works and enhanced my understanding of the more cerebral, abstract meanings behind them that a chronological approach could never bring to the experience without prior knowledge (or masses of in-gallery interpretive materials). But perhaps people (visitors, curators, 'experts') just prefer the comforting familiarity of the 'norm'? It could also be seen as a backlash against social inclusion and Government-backed initiatives to widen intellectual access. Let's face it - they're wrong - but some people want to maintain the elitism of the museum/gallery. Heaven forbid they should ever have to mix with the plebs. ;)

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