From 1760-2010, Germany has been marked by several levels of nation-building as well as many different ideological and territorial projects. This inquiry has focused on processes of long continuity, spanning unification in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, adding the most important ruptures and institutional inventions to get a firm-enough basis for conclusions on the institutional role of museums vis-a-vis the state-making process. The most significant periods for the interaction between museums and nation-building can be labelled
- The struggle, leading to Germany’s unification in 1871, where several regions made their bids through museums.
- Imperial unity on display from 1871-1914. National museums were stabilizing and universalizing the German Empire in the world.
- Nazi cultural policy, 1933-1945: Comprehensive museum plans for the Third Reich.
- GDR (German Democratic Republic) national museums between 1949-1990 were dominated by the ideology of socialist culture.
- The Federal republic, before and after 1990: inscribing Nazi and GDR as pasts contained within brackets.
Germany’s history is marked by the processes of unification meeting dissociative forces resulting in dramatic political shifts and the persistence of a complex federal structure. Museums reflect various strategies both within this history and through contributions to stabilizing, reinforcing and materializing ideas of continuity. Balancing the unifying message of the heritage of a Roman – German legacy and later federal structures resulted in a distribution of national museums in Berlin, Munich, Nuremberg and Bonn. A long-standing cooperation and tension between local, regional and national identities with a clear utopian and activist element marks initiatives taken for establishing national museums. What later became national museums often started as private individual or collective elite initiatives aimed at putting certain projects on the political agenda.
The enlightenment ambitions went beyond national borders with the establishment of Humboldt University in Berlin in 1810 and several of the institutions at the Museumsinselas “Universalmuseen”. The scientific and technical scope of Deutsches Museum in Munich captured the rational dimension in German identity politics into the next century. These rational and scientific ambitions coincided in time and helped to legitimize both military national unification and imperial undertakings.
Implicit and explicit historical narratives representing the existence of German culture dominated national museums with a plastic delimitation between a European (Roman), Germanspeaking and German state as the space of representation. Art and cultural history was more expandable, while political history followed the honours and sorrows of political community.
National museums have, overall, survived with an astonishing continuity when successively changing the goal of state-making from creating the state, an empire, a Nazi state to overcoming that past and creating democratic visions in both liberal and communist versions to, again, healing that division and constructing it as a parenthesis in history. A re-nationalisation process post-1990 again activated investments in museums and reveals again a standing ambiguity in dealing with national sentiments. This is most clearly visible in museum discussions and projects dealing with the NS-legacy versus demands for “Normalisierung”.
As opposed to many European countries from France to Greece that have a high level of centralization within the field of culture, both culture and cultural politics is, in Germany, mainly dealt with on a regional level within each Bundesland. This can partly be explained by the terrifying experience of a centralized rule and the misuse of art and culture for political ends made during the NS-regime (Klein 2003):71). After the war, one sought to prevent this through legislation by reducing state influence within the cultural policy sphere through the foundational law (GG article 5(3) and 30). A federal - and thus fragmented - Germany was also something desired by the Allies. However, a decentralized Germany was nothing entirely new. An on-going interplay between regional and central forces in representing the state was one of the long-term phenomena, although driven by various logics: In the mid-19th century, the relative strength and actual outcome of the unification process was naturally open-ended which allowed for several strong suggestions, while mid-20thcentury dynamics was determined by the urge not to repeat the mishaps of a strong national ideology. The current trend seems to lend itself to stronger nationalizing forces in the field of memory politics.
The overarching argument of the role played by national museums in the making of the German state and nation is that it has provided a platform for a cultural constitution only slowly negotiating changing ideas of what it means to be German and how to relate to local, regional and transnational communities. Hence, the main impact of the museums is to secure ideas of continuity in the midst of dramatic political change.
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011. 327-362 p.
EuNaMus, national museums, comparative research, Europe, nationalism, transnationalism
European National Museums: Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen, Bologna 28-30 April 2011