Posted by: michaeldaybath | January 30, 2015

One Nation under Goethe?

Germany: Memories of a Nation: a 600-year history in objects, The British Museum, London, 16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015

Goethe-Denkmal, Frankfurt am Main (Hessen)

Goethe-Denkmal, Frankfurt am Main (Hessen)

Germany, where is it? I do not know where to find such a country [Deutschland? aber wo liegt es? Ich weiß  das Land nicht finden] — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller (Xenien, 1796)

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the British Museum’s major exhibition on Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition had been showing since the middle of October and finally closed in late January, prominent visitors including the Prime Minister and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who earlier in January had been given a personal tour of the exhibition by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor. The exhibition had been accompanied by a major BBC Radio 4 series, presented by MacGregor – on the general lines of his earlier A History of the World in 100 objects – and these programmes are available to download as podcasts [1]. MacGregor has also produced a substantial book based on the radio series, which also functions as some kind of exhibition catalogue [2].

The exhibition aimed to cover 600 years of German history. It mostly took a thematic approach, although the general progression was broadly chronological. If a single overarching theme could be identified, it was that of fragmentation and diversity, i.e. that there were “many Germanies” historically and culturally. The exhibition emphasised that, for much of its history, Germany had been far more of an idea than a unified state. Partly, this simply reflected the political realities of the Holy Roman Empire, which lacked a centralising court. It may also have hinted at a deeper truth. Prominently displayed in one of the opening rooms of the exhibition was Goethe and Schiller’s epigrammatic question, “Germany, where is it? I do not know where to find such a country.”

The exhibition started with the events of 1989, the revolution that led to the reunification of Germany in 1990. It then went back to explain how, historically, the sphere of German cultural and economic influence spread well beyond the borders of the current nation state, e.g. demonstrated by a map of Germany printed in Eichstätt in 1494. These opening rooms of the exhibition focused on selected objects linked to locations mostly beyond the borders of the current nation state. Exhibits from various eras were used to demonstrate the importance of German culture and language in the Hansa cities and in places like Basel (e.g., Hans Holbein’s portrait of Erasmus), Strasbourg (e.g., the Strasbourg clock (by Isaac Habrecht, 1589), Gutenberg’s printing technology), Prague (e.g., the patronage of science by Rudolf II, the writings of Franz Kafka), and Königsberg / Kaliningrad (e.g., Baltic amber, the birthplace of Kathe Kollwitz). The importance of landscape to the idea of Germany was evidenced by romantic paintings by Carl Gustav Carus (views of the Riesengebirge and Rügen) and Caspar David Friedrich (Der Mittag, 1821-22).

Brandenburger Tor, Berlin (Berlin-Brandenburg)

Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, taken from the Reichsgebäude (Berlin-Brandenburg)

The following sections looked in more detail at the role of the Holy Roman Empire and the development of the German nation. On display was a 1913 replica of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire (from Aachen) as well as an early example (1848) of a German flag incorporating the colours black, red and gold. This section included a selection of objects from various parts of the empire, including a city panorama of Augsburg (by Jörg Seld), various ceramics (e.g., stoneware from Cologne) and silverware (e.g., the Pressburg cup). The religious tumult of the late medieval era was also well-represented, with a suggestion that the decentralisation of power within the empire meant that new ideas could gain hold and then spread fairly rapidly. The exhibition included several objects reflecting the religious context of the late middle ages, including limewood sculptures of the four evangelists by the fifteenth-century Würzburg sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (from an altarpiece made for the Pfarrkirche in Münnerstadt, Bavaria) as well as various items relating to Martin Luther and the Reformation (e.g., a Luther Bible, portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder of Luther and Katharina von Bora). The emergence of Germany as a nation state was portrayed in the context of the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the war against Napoleon, exhibits including a print of Napoleon entering the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1806, a statue of Field Marshal Blücher (Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt), who led the Prussian armies against Napoleon at the battles of Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815), and Napoleon’s hat (which was captured by the Prussians at Waterloo). The exhibition also covered 18th and 19th century developments in German politics (including Frederick the Great of Prussia, the German National Assembly of 1848 in Frankfurt, Bismarck, the writings of Karl Marx) and the development of a national mythology (e.g., the folk tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm, Wagner’s Ring cycle, the Walhalla monument (1842) near Regensburg).

The next section of the exhibition covered both arts and crafts, commencing with Albrecht Dürer’s well-known woodcut of a rhinoceros (1515), but covering much else besides, including porcelain from Dresden and Meissen, and metalwork from Solingen, Nürnburg and Augsburg. The development of printing was represented by one of the British Library’s Gutenberg Bibles. The centrepiece of this part of the exhibition, however, was probably Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein’s painting, Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1787), on loan from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt [3]. The exhibition also contained selected objects related to Goethe’s artistic and scientific pursuits (e.g. his theory of colour, his collections of geological specimens) and his written works (represented here by British Library copies of his novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) and his plays Iphigenie auf Tauris and Faust).

By this stage of the exhibition, the twentieth century began to predominate. A small section on the art of the Bauhaus was followed by far darker themes related to the First World War (e.g. Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (1924), the emergency money Notgeld), the hyperinflation of the 1920s in the Weimar Republic (e.g., high-value banknotes), and – most terrible of all – the grim shadow of the National Socialist era. Standing its own was the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which incorporates the text, “Jeden das Seine“(“to each his own” or “to each what he deserves”), all highlighted in red paint (so that it could be seen by those inside). The following sections covered the Stunde Null (Zero Hour) of 1945, the postwar division of Germany into zones, and the construction of the Berlin Wall. Finally, the reunification of Germany in 1990 was represented by a large architectural model of the rebuilt Reichstagsgebäude in Berlin, on loan from the architects (Foster and Partners). Opposite that was Ernst Barlach’s vast “hovering angel,” Der Schwebende (1926), on loan from Güstrow Cathedral in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. This sculpture had a very interesting story to tell. Designed by Barlach as a war memorial (and featuring the face of Kathe Kollwitz), the original Güstrow angel was destroyed in National Socialist times as Entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”). However, a second cast of the angel remained successfully hidden and was installed after the Second World War in the Antoniterkirche in Cologne. This cast was then used in the 1950s to make another copy of the sculpture, which was then presented to Güstrow (which was then in the German Democratic Republic).

Volkswagen Export Type I Beetle

Volkswagen Export Type I Beetle, in the Great Court of the British Museum (loaned from the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu)

As someone with a long-standing interest in all things German, I personally enjoyed visiting this exhibition very much, . It combined in an interesting way, items from the museum’s own collections (e.g. prints, ceramics, metalwork, etc.) with some major objects loaned from elsewhere, including a good representation of works from the British Library, including the Eichstätt Map, a Gutenberg Bible, and works by Goethe and Karl Marx [4]. However, the “object-based” curatorial approach meant that it was difficult sometimes to work out why particular items had been included in the exhibition, or why other items had been left out. For example, there was very little about the music of Germany – which was rather odd for the country of Bach and Beethoven (unless that was reserved for the audio guide). However, having now listened to a few of the BBC podcasts, I suspect that my visit to the exhibition would have been greatly enhanced if I had been able to listen to all of the radio programmes beforehand (or had read MacGregor’s book). These would appear to provide the more rounded viewpoint that was (perhaps) lacking from the exhibition itself. For me personally the highlight was Tischbein’s Goethe in the Roman Campagna,  but there was much else to enjoy. The exhibition was also valuable for alerting me to the existence of works and artists less well-known to me personally, including Riemenschneider and Barlach. It was unusual also to see a motor vehicle in the museum, with a dark blue Volkswagen Beetle (on loan from the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu) providing an exhibition “taster” for those that happened to be visiting the museum’s Great Court.


[1] BBC, Germany: Memories of a Nation:

[2] Neil MacGregor, Germany: Memories of a Nation (London: Allen Lane, 2014). ISBN-13: 978-0241008331

[3] Städel Museum, Goethe in the Roman Campagna:

[4] Susan Reed, “Memories of a Nation: British Library loans at the British Museum,” British Library European Studies blog, 21 January 2015:


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