Exhibiting East Germany in the West

This British Academy-funded project, led by Dr Chloe Paver, examines the relationship between national, regional, and international memory cultures in museum presentations of the history and society of the former East Germany (GDR). The 'reunification' of East and West Germany was constructed politically as a national project. Its effects were felt across the nation in increased taxation and certain images of the GDR were shared nationally through film and television. At the same time, the material remains and reminders of the GDR are still largely to be found in the former East and almost all the museums devoted specifically to the GDR are located in the eastern states. In order better to understand the effects of this geographical restriction on material memory, the project analyses Western museum displays which either thematise the GDR explicitly or purport to represent Germany as a whole. The project builds on a foundation of work contributed to the AHRC-funded 'After the Wall' project and draws on fieldwork at museums in western Germany and in the USA.

The project is interested both in how the years of division in Germany are portrayed in western museums and how museums have adapted their collections and displays in response to the expansion of the Federal Republic in 1990 to include the eastern states (which contained one fifth of the total population). Many museums in the West style themselves the 'German Museum of x' but how inclusive is their notion of 'Germanness'? The question is politically important because there is a long-standing resentment in the East which derives from two sources: a feeling that the Federal Republic (for which the aggrieved read 'the West') has imposed a blanket condemnation of GDR society, thereby discriminating against those who lived decent, if politically compliant, lives for up to forty years in the GDR; and a feeling that the Western majority is indifferent to the economic and social hardship suffered by many easterners during the transition to democracy.

The funded fieldwork for the project is now complete, and so far the findings both confirm and complicate the hypotheses formulated in the grant application. In the process of fieldwork, for instance, I discovered the existence of an amateur museum of the GDR near Stuttgart (deep in the West). Set up by escapees from East Germany its intention is very clearly to condemn the inhumanity of the East German regime. One museum volunteer whose story is told in the displays and in guided tours was imprisoned, alongside her family, merely for applying to leave the East. Given the absolute victimhood of these personal experiences, this is not a museum on which reconciliation can be founded; it has nothing to say about the difficulties of transition for citizens in the east.

The more common experience in western museums (outside the national history museum in Bonn) is that the East is doubly neglected: its existence for 40 years plays little role, but nor have museums updated their collections and displays to take full account of the new federal states that acceded to the Federal Republic with the dissolution of the GDR in 1990. Various factors appear to be at play, though it is difficult to establish their relative weight: the sluggishness characteristic of the museum as institution (the drag exerted by existing collections and the budgetary constraints which slow down the renewal of collections); Germany's federal system, which tends to give museums a local or regional bias; and a lack of will on the part of the museum management.

The German Museum of Inland Waterways may sound like a trivial example, though only if one ignores the huge economic importance of these waterways for European trade. While theoretically representing the whole of Germany, the museum is essentially a local museum of the Rhine. No clear attempt has been made to update the collections and displays to include the significant commercial waterways in the east of Germany, nor to address the history of their redevelopment (or neglect) since 1990. Likewise, the German Museum of Hunting and Fishing in Munich combines a strong Bavarian bias with collections including many pre-1945 objects. Only now, more than 20 years after German unification, are its updated displays about angling set to include an example from the new German states. The 40 years of the GDR remain a blank.

Some more positive stories can be told. The Sport- und Olympiamuseum in Cologne started collecting East German artefacts while Germany was still divided and has updated its displays to give more equal weighting to East and German sporting endeavours and practices. This reflects the fact that Germany's sporting world before 1989 was partly structured around inter-German rivalry, and that even those West Germans with little interest in East German history and society remember the names of East German sportsmen and sportswomen. Sport therefore represents one of the few areas of common cultural memory. In its texts, the museum still has a tendency to treat West Germany as the norm and East Germany as the other, and its collections are still shaped by its western location, but its intention to be inclusive is not in doubt.

The Wende Museum in Los Angeles aims to tell the story of East Germany and the other communist states in Eastern Europe from beyond the political restrictions of Germany. Communist art is taken seriously on its own terms and the material culture of everyday life is presented with more interest for its design characteristics than for the evils of the planned economy that produced it. While the tyrannous nature of the regime is acknowledged, particularly in a display about the Berlin Wall, the museum has taken the bold step of interviewing a guard who worked at the Wall. A section of the Wall set up by the museum in the cultural centre of LA has been 'translated' by its translocation and acts both as a backdrop to personal ceremonies (such as engagement ceremonies) and as a symbol of other walls and divisions such as the Mexican-American border fortifications, the Palestinian-Israeli division, and the Korean border. It was recently the site for impromptu homages to President Kennedy.

A continuation of the project might usefully focus on the Deutsches Museum in Munich, another museum which purports to be 'German' (though one must recognise that the title 'Deutsch' has meant different things through history). Germany's major museum of science and technology, the Deutsches Museum combines a supra-national approach to technology (acknowledging scientific advancement wherever in the world it happened) with a collection which has some clear biases towards German invention and research. The scientific advances of East Germany appear to be lost between these two poles of the pre-1945 national and international, though given the enormous floor space of the museum, only a dedicated research project could investigate the validity of this hypothesis further.