Re-casting histories: in between all that is solid

Two very different takes on how populism and political discourse in the public sphere of a country and the construction and curatorial agendas of museums reframe (and at worst ‘rebrand’) the trajectories of national and cultural identities between pasts and its futures were published this month. Apart from the timely commentaries considering the increasing right-wing populism and radical parochialism across Europe, it also chimed with the topic of my MPhil thesis on the conflicting readings of political-historic identity around Chipperfield’s restoration of the Neues Museum on the Museumisland in Berlin.

Neil MacGregor, former Director of British Museum, now in charge of the programming of the 600m Euro Humboldt Forum in Berlin, commented in a piece on the British national Geschichtsverständnis’ (conception of history) as ‘dangerous’, saying that ‘Britain has a focus on the ‘sunny side’ rather than a German-like appraisal of past’. The commentary leads on from a former piece that goes into depth about his understanding of the interplay between the presence of cultural institutions in the public space, their historical framing and the politics of their curation. In comparison to Germany, MacGregor states, Britian has not made its histories as salient a piece of the telling of its national narrative in its institutions or its curriculum as Germany has. (there’s a Museum Association poll on the matter, if you’d like to vote.) The article makes a link to currents of populism and national sentiment and positions Germany as an open, tolerant country – notwithstanding the most recent policy on refugees, in comparison to which the UK truly has a shameful quasi non-existent record and recent events have illustrated this even more disconcertingly. But returning to the article and McGregor, he attributes its perceived greater tolerance to its policy of ‘monuments to national historical shame’, as well as allegedly a much older territorial-geographic tendency for pluralism and decentralisation, continued in part through a federal governance structure with the Bundesländer.

Martin Roth, German-born former Director of the V&A who resigned post-Brexit, set to be President of the Institute for Foreign Relations in Stuttgart from 2017, on the other hand accuses the makers of the Humboldt Forum of historic and architectural folly in the face of contemporary challenges of rising populist tendencies and the intersection of the ‘national’ and the ‘foreign’, and calls for a collective intellectual protest against nationalism and xenophobia. His commentary suggests that ‘instead of having the Humboldt Forum in Berlin become the Schoenefeld of culture, one could use the ‘concrete millions’ built up without coherent concept to open centres all across Germany to support an open and democratic culture – more in the sense of Habermas and Popper than Humboldt.’ Citing the repeated attacks on refugees that take place across the country and the rise of the right-wing populist party AfD, he accuses cultural institutions of standing by without a critical policitism.

Museums are bound into discourses of self-images of nations, identity and the projection of histories into societies of the present and future in manifold ways. For one, their spatial and institutional location within the public sphere makes them a matter of the citizenry, as much as it places responsibilities for ‘historical dialogue’ upon the state who utilises public funds to finance their existence. Secondly, their inception in the 18th-19th century locates them at the intersection of the founding of nation states, as a built monument reinforcing national founding myths (Hobsbawm, 1990; Gellner, 1983) for the creation of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 2006), and at the age of colonialism respectively, which in a museum context all to often meant looting, exploitation and questionable anthropologic racism in the name of science, progress and preservation. The act of building, restoring, curating a museum and its collection, particularly as the ones in question, with international collections, is always an act of (re)-interpreting this difficult relationship between possession and oppression. Thirdly, of course, we are talking about museums in Berlin, which as a place that has been at the core of monumental historical and political change and the as the now capital of a united Germany, bears a particular responsibility to retain a critical, slightly uncomfortable, interrogatory relationship with its built form. (Ladd, 1997Koshar, 1998Wise, 1998; Ward, 2006)

This is one of the reasons that makes the MacGregor’s comparison with British history somewhat uncomfortable, as relativising the past means relativising the shoa, and is equated with an attempt to normalise a monumental, industrialised genocidal undertaking that bears no comparison in modern history (the 1985 Historikerstreit Habermas was involved in being a case in point). Historical comparisons between countries are difficult at best. This is not to say that British history does not require a far more rigorous examination and illustration of its own dark chapters, the effects of which run through into contemporary conflicts and into the current waves of worrying racism and xenophobia coming to the surface after a proxy legitimisation via recent political events – and that more understanding, more public interrogation of these and the complicity it contains, would aid the deconstruction of an ‘us’ and ‘others’ discourse in the public sphere and level the dichotomy between ‘national’ and ‘foreign, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘now’ and ‘then’ to reveal the complexities and interlinkages of historical identities and their projections into shaping societies’s futures. But even then, it’s not that straightforward.

I will focus on the image of Germany as more adept at dealing with its past, a statement that raises a number of questions. Examining the inception story and final narrative around its symbolism reveals a number of schisms in the perfect historic processing picture. The Humboldt Forum in its final form will be standing in place of the former Baroque – Prussian Stadtschloss (started in the 15th century, finalised in the 18th), bombed and then demolished by the GDR regime and replaced with the Palast der Republik. Owing to the plot’s Prussian imperialist, militarist heritage and the GDR dictatorship past it is historically a highly contested site. What will be built is a pastiche reconstruction of the Prussian original, with one side modern façade – the product of a year-long public petition led by Hamburg businessman and aristocrat Wilhelm von Boddien. Despite the fact that von Boddien and his circle were discounted as ‘Kleinbuerger’ (petty bourgeois) with Prussian reactionary clout, following the intermediary stage of veiling the site in a printed fabric replica image of the finished pastiche building, the Bundestag eventually gave its permission for the original reconstruction according to von Boddien, ‘if Berlin is to have a historic cultural identity, it needs this as its classic centre’; in an attempt to connect understandings of time and space (Lynch, 1972) touching upon the absence of a coherent spatial narrative to anchor a German historic, time-bound self-understanding in – an extension of the absence, or negative inversion, of decades of history that leave a rupture unable to refer to for national self-identification and one that is recurrently requiring completion – the spatial being its most blunt, ‘present’ form. A centre is what Berlin has been without for decades, but it is another question entirely whether it needs a ‘centre’, or whether its voids are signifiers of its historic ruptures. (Huyssen, 1997)

Casting our eyes back to the politics of the competition and realisation for the Neues Museum restoration by David Chipperfield and Julian Harrapp, the contested nature of Berlin’s ‘Kulturgut’ (cultural goods) and their rewriting in space is just as obvious, particularly if they’re of Prussian heritage. Chipperfield and Harrapp’s restoration was never going to be a pastiche (something that happened to the adjacent Altes Museum under the GDR regime, a surprising piece of historical revisionism in that respect), but as it became clear that the pair would undertake a ‘critical restoration’, public petitions calling to ‘stop the destruction’ of the Neues Museum were started and a ‘Save the Museumsinsel’ lobby including celebrities called for a restoration closer to the ‘original’. The restoration of the museum retained great sensitivity to preserving the visibility of the layers of its histories, thorough, yet tentatively fragmented: the brickwork adjacent to the main cast concrete staircase hints at the WW2 bomb damage, the coloured limewash rather than plaster fill on the original wall decorations tell of the years of dereliction and damage – what is gone remains gone, what has been damaged is not replaced, it is kept alive and the replacements are visible and readable as such. The result is beautiful and real, and that is without mentioning its curated contents. But it was all too much for the society ‘Save the Neues Museum – Chipperfield was even referred to as a Brit destroying the museum ‘all over again’.

The initiative to restore the Stadtschloss faithfully originates in the same nostalgic sentiment, that of a complete, Prussian classicist perfection that does away with the decades of political extremism which at least a part of Berliners are allegedly tired of, that of living in a theme park of national historic fractures and guilt. But where else, if not the capital?

The publication on the Humboldt Forum by the Stiftung fuer Preussischen Kulturbesitz (Foundation for Prussian cultural heritage) sets out a grand vision for a museum of international cultures and a hub for interdisciplinary culture and research. The image of the famous Humboldt brothers, Alexander known for their roles in research on geology, natural science and socio-economic conditions of indigenous communities across the world, and Wilhelm for linguistic research paired with his social and cultural policy influence in Prussian society, is conjured up to give the reconstruction project a framing of openness, societal betterment through education and internationality. Paired with the pastiche shell it can’t help but feel like a somewhat undifferentiated, wholesome, bluntly naïve story to tell in the ‘centre’ of Berlin – a space that has not existed for decades, at a time when German and European society seems more fragmented and questions of identity and its contestations anchored in movement and migration.

The plans outline an open space for public interaction and an ‘internationally led programme’, that will most notably include exhibits on Germany’s colonial history, which is new in its dealings with the past. It is of course impossible to draw conclusions on the nature of a space without experience of the mediation its contents. There is a difficult link extrapolating between reconstructed Prussian heritage and intellectual pursuit in the ‘international’ and contemporary cultural openness, when a space is framed as so solidly ‘German’ – a problem that seeps through all current debates about the power differentials in ‘integration’ (perhaps a topic for another day), and the space for multiplicity in controlling, shaping and writing the narrative about what a ‘German’ cultural space in the centre of its capital would look like. In fact, on the occasion of the book launch on the Schloss project, author Peter-Klaus Schuster, former Director of the Berlin State Museums, revealed that the identity of the space had not been decided when the project was agreed: ‘at the beginning of the Humboldt Forum was not the idea for a museum, but perplexity.’

What of Roth’s Habermasian dream of open forums for intercultural dialogue across the country then? In light of rising tensions and populist sentiment across Germany and the continent, investing in a comprehensive programme that tackles intercultural openness in situ, rather than 600 million on a reconstructed Prussian palace with a focus on high culture and the reframing of national and international self-understanding with a cultural branding project in the capital seems like a valuable idea.

Refugees are being sent to any location from the rural to the urban across the country and often entirely segregated from their host communities spatially and socially, housed in unused building stock, given daily pocket money and taught collectively in German classes often organized by local adult education centres or schools, until they receive their permit to stay and get posted to a different (mostly urban) location to settle in. Their trajectories as migrants don’t end with arrival but are often a sequence of smaller internal migrations, sometimes made more difficult by the bureaucracy around their settlement, and during their wait, the lack of interface with the rest of society, the lack of agency within it.

On a more anecdotal level, when speaking to a community organiser for refugees, formerly employed in regional development, in my hometown over the summer – a remote place with low regional connectivity but subject to a history of unrealistic, debt-incurring local infrastructure projects, and a population of around 3,000, hosting around 200-300 refugees, recently disconcertingly reaching the highest percentage of populist right-wing party AfD vote (14%) in communal elections – the lack of physical space for interaction and dialogue in rural locations was obvious. The creation of a grand central space in the Berlin, the character of its form and what it communicates aside, seems a folly in juxtaposition, given the acute localized chance to lay the groundwork for future readings of what it means to be located in Germany, or Europe, regardless of whether through birth or immigration. There is of course always opportunity to set an example for a cultural exchange that can be propagated on a more local level: although the framing and built form of the Humboldt Forum does not speak of distributed agency when it comes to more pluralist, multicultural understandings of identity, there is scope to achieve this in open programming.

The same is true for the idea of ‘forums for intercultural dialogue’ however – similar to Nancy Fraser’s critique of Habermas’ public sphere as a very particular, ideal, official forum – more pluralism is required than simply teaching German, and a way to create agency for migrants and refugees in interaction that transforms this passivity and exclusion from mainstream society while the wait for relocating is taking place.

To return to the original premise of who deals better with their history – which really is a question about who deals well with conceptions of their future – as everywhere the picture is far from clear and varies between segments of the populations and depends on location. Re-reading the narrative around the Humboldt Forum, its inception rather seems to fit with the perplexity and uncomfortable compromise that western nations are currently trying to mediate with populism: suppression of the populist is no longer viable, conceding impossible, dialogue necessary. In between there is a slippery slope of inhabiting a trajectory where behind a thinly constructed reflection of a wholesome past, centralised and fixed, lay the dispersed intangible charged currents of contested identities and spaces across the continent and beyond that need urgent attention and hold the opportunity for the future.


Image: Neues Museum Dome, Carina Schneider / Alan McCartney, 2009