From October to November last year I took time out from my research at IWM to undertake a residency in the German town of Bremen. I was selected to take part in the Goethe Institut ‘Scholars in Residence’ programme, which pairs German scholars with international early career researchers to work jointly on a project. My project explored the ways in which a number of German museums represent twentieth-century conflict. I was paired with Dr Yvonne Pörzgen of the University of Bremen, whose own research looks at the way in which Germany is represented within Russian museums of the Second World War in St Petersburg.
The residency was a fantastic opportunity to meet German scholars and to look at my own research in a different light. My CDA focuses on the history of display at IWM since 1917 and explores themes of cultural memory and conflict and the way museums and memorials represent difficult pasts. In light of my interest in these subjects, Germany was a fascinating place to be. German museums of conflict face the balancing act of representing traumatic past events without sensationalizing or offending. At the same time their displays must acknowledge both German responsibility for wartime actions and the suffering of German soldiers and civilians. During the six weeks of my stay I was able to visit Dresden, Berlin, Munster and Munich and see how museums in these very different German cities meet these challenges.
For my case studies I chose the Military History Museum in Dresden and the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The first of these provided an example of how a museum with a potentially very traditional subject, military history, has attempted to experiment with innovative display topics and techniques. Like IWM, the Military History Museum has a number of chronological galleries. However, the Dresden museum also includes galleries which deal with some of the more general themes of war. These are housed in an architectural ‘intervention’ designed by Daniel Libeskind (who also designed IWM North). The result is a dramatic use of space that prompts visitors to think about the nature of war and its consequences, as well as learning about the history of the German military.
The German Historical Museum gives a more straightforward account of the history of Germany from 100BC, and twentieth-century conflicts are incorporated within this long story. However, some visual techniques are used to enhance the displays. The section on the Holocaust includes a model of Auschwitz and a poignant piece of sculpture. The section on the Cold War evokes the period through cultural icons such as a Trabant and a section of the Berlin Wall.
Overall, the Goethe residency enhanced my research in a number of ways. The time spent studying German museums freshened my thinking about the displays at IWM and will allow me to round out my thesis. Furthermore, the visit has given me insight into some of the work being done in Germany within my field. Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to live in Bremen and sample German culture. Dr Pörzgen has now begun her residency in the UK and we hope to continue to build on the benefits of this exchange.