Telling the story of Germany over 600 years was never going to be easy, particularly as the last hundred have had such a devastating effect on world history. Telling the story using 200 objects was going to be even more challenging.
To coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly 25 years ago, the exhibition starts with newsreel footage of that extraordinary, and totally unpredicted, event, that redrew the map of Germany virtually overnight. Maps make up a large part of the numerous and wordy captions, which sometimes confuse and confound, particularly when Poland suddenly disappears in one and then re-emerges in another. The tightly-packed exhibition has been notionally split into four zones, namely Floating Frontiers, Empire and Nation, Arts and Achievement and Crisis and Memory. Within each ‘chapter’ are any number of diverse objects, and this is very much an object-led exhibition, which appears to have no relationship to their neighbours; Napoleon’s bicorne hat sits next to a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales, but there could have been an amusing addition of a German mantel clock, made in Baden in the same shape as the headgear.
There is one truly remarkable clock on display, the towering gilded brass Strasbourg carillon clock of 1589, with Christ striking the hour, and Death chasing after Faith, Hope and Charity as well as the three worldly virtues, Wisdom, Fortitude and Justice, accompanied by a Lutheran hymn echoing around the galleries.
There is an array of scientific objects, but, strangely, no mention of Leica. Strange because Ernst Leitz II, who took over the company in 1920, responded to the election of Hitler in 1933 by helping Jews leave Germany, ‘assigning’ hundreds of them to work in his overseas sales offices through, what became known as, the ‘Leica Freedom Train’, even though some were not even employees.
German engineering is represented by a sad-looking 1953 right-hand-drive VW Beetle, on loan from Beaulieu – surely they could have splashed out and borrowed a better, and earlier, model with split rear windows from the Deutsches Museum in München? The original KdF-Wagen prototype (Kraft-durch-Freude, meaning Strength-Through-Joy) designed by Ferry Porsche, did not have a rear window at all. Although the Beetle is fundamental to Germany’s return to economic prosperity and success, with 21.5 million sold worldwide, how exciting it would have been to have had a 1939 Mercedes-Benz W163 Grand Prix car or a rear-engined V-16 Auto-Union from the same era.
One of the most extraordinary objects on display is a gilt-copper and steel automaton in the form of a galleon, made at the same time as the Strasbourg clock, which trundled along the table at the beginning of a banquet, with sailors wielding hammers to strike the hours and quarters on bells in the crows’ nests. Music is played on a small organ and a drum skin stretched over the base of the hull. The Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, led by heralds, process before their Emperor seated on a throne beneath the main mast. To cap it all, as a grand finale, it fired cannons broadside at the astonished guests.
What this exhibition lacks is the calm and informed voice of Neil MacGregor, who is narrating the series on Radio 4 until the end of November. Whether it is better to have seen the show first and then listen to the radio, or the other way round, is open to debate. Certainly, the latter course would render redundant those lengthy captions. If all else fails, the ubiquitous book is on sale from 6 November.
The exhibition itself has been laid out in a most prosaic, old-school fashion, which is a shame, as some objects just needed more space around them, and not shoved next to yet another piece of amber, or jewellery, or coin.
Tilman Riemenschneider’s sculpture of four saints carved in limewood is exquisite, particularly St Luke, whose head is tilted pensively, with one hand on his closed Gospel and the other on a hornéd sheep. The paintings, apart from the famously awful portrait of Goethe in Italy by Tischbein, where basic anatomy has been eschewed, are superb. The star of the show being Hans Holbein’s portrait of a rich Danzig merchant from the Hanseatic League trading in London, entitled Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze. Boy, could that man paint? Dürer is represented by his famous Rhinoceros, and Melancholia, which lead the visitor through Dresden and the Bauhaus, with a baby’s cot, looking for all the world like a 3-D Mondrian.
And then into the 20th century, and this is where the exhibition lets itself down. The First World War is barely touched on, and then suddenly we are in and out of the Second World War, having seen piles of hyper-inflation banknotes, a bodice made of paper, a random poster from 1937 Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) and a replica gate from Buchenwald. One gets the feeling that, in a low ebb of world history, the Germans have been let off lightly, but it would take a seriously talented curator and designer to find a tactical and tactful path through this minefield of guilt and humility, without shocking or alienating the visitor, or even the Germans.
The last part of the exhibition deals with the reunification of the two Germanys, with a totally uninteresting model of a U-Bahn station in East Berlin alongside a wet-suit used to escape into the west, and the reconfigured Reichstag; another wasted opportunity in not having photographs of Christo’s wrapped building from 1995, which was a far more exciting, if less permanent, sight than Foster and Partners’ offering.
Finally, and inevitably, one exits through the shop, and the dear merchandising people have assembled an array of retail products; and maybe this sums up our view of the Germans better than the 200 objects in the exhibition itself: VW Beetle and camper vans a-plenty, daschunds à gogo, Durer’s Rhinoceros, Paul Klee’s, Die Heilige vom inneren Licht (The saint of the inner light) and a Bauhaus chess set at £450.
Germany: Memories of a Nation
The British Museum
Until 25 January 2015