Ich liebe Deutschland. I’ve not been to Germany this year and so thankfully the British Museum have brought it to me. I’ve been listening to the BBC4 podcasts and trying to make sense of the Holy Roman Empire and letting Neil MacGregor fill in the many gaps in my knowledge.
As you enter the exhibition a film showing the Berlin wall coming down is being screened, but its the origins and development of the country that this exhibition is concerned with, not just the wars and the wall that we’re all more familiar with.
Coming from an island nation the idea of shifting boundaries is a little alien to us Brits, gone are the days when English Kings were more concerned with their French lands than this small nation, although the close call with the Scottish independence vote might have brought the concept a little too close for comfort. But here, we see how Germany, until quite recently (1871) was split into numerous smaller states with different rulers, allegiances and currencies and how in 1700 over 150 rulers and city states issued their own coins. Similarly, cities no longer within Germany were once key parts of its domain including Strasburg (France), Kaliningrad (Poland) and Prague (Czech Republic).
The next room explores some of the ideas and developments that made Germany, or were made by Germans. The fight against Napoleon helped galvanise the idea of a German nation working together and ultimately these states were united in one country with a dominant Prussia (the state with Berlin at its centre) and the absence of Austria. Prussia was proud of its strength, adopting iron as its symbol representing simplicity and strength – the exhibition shows us a statue of one of its Kings made of iron depicted as St George and a later King of Prussia established the Iron Cross to award soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars.
Also during the 19th Century scholars became interested in common German origins and on display is a copy of Grimms fairytales that was developed through the Brother’s Grimm’s search for and collation of traditional German folk stories, which became increasingly German focused and rustic in tone and edited particularly for children.
Two particular inventions on show in the exhibition can’t help but bring to mind the German stereotype for efficiency and discipline: the Gutenberg Bible and a porcelain rhino. Gutenburg developed his printing press in the mid 1400s; he wasn’t the first person to invent printing, but the developments he made led to an easier and much more efficient way of doing it. He used individual metal letters that could be changed easily instead of the need for creating whole new wood blocks for each piece of work and he used a press which evenly distributed the weight meaning each version was of consistent quality. Once the basic text was printed each of his bibles could be decorated by hand, meaning they could be distributed throughout the country and each area could customise it depending on their own tastes and traditions. This, along with Germany’s strong trade networks meant the typed word spread far and wide.
The German’s also ‘invented’ porcelain. The material had been long sought after and imported to Europe in huge quantities, but its secret recipe had never been uncovered, despite many many attempts meaning even low quality Chinese porcelain was a prized possession in this part of the world. Then in Saxony, close to Dresden, this magical mystery was unraveled and through persistent practical experimentation European porcelain was born and from 1710 the Meissen factory was able to furnish the rich and famous with their own European porcelain. Hooray.
And then we do come to the war, first visions of WW1 from Otto Dix who survived the Somme to become a celebrated artist. And then WWII and its aftermath. The exhibition finishes with a flying sculpture with the features of Kaethe Kollwitz, which makes me sad and humble just looking at her. Her own son died in WWI and her grandson died in WWII. She was fervently anti-war and drew particular attention to the plight of the poor and the mothers who were losing their children. The original version of this particular piece was created by Kollwitz’s friend Ernst Barlach in 1926 to be hung in Gustrow Cathedral looking towards Flanders, a mother grieving for her lost son.
Knowing something about German history and listening to the podcasts will probably help you to navigate your way through the complex history on show. When I was there on a packed Saturday afternoon it was difficult to enjoy the exhibition and to appreciate each of the objects on display, but I was glad to see it so full and glad that other people want to find out more about this amazing country.
Until 25 January 2015