I would like to present a summary of a lecture that I believe would be interesting for all AGMS students.
On the 18th of November I went to a lecture hosted by the University of Manchester welcoming Dr. Matthew Philpotts, to talk about an aspect of his research concerning National Socialist Sites in Eastern Germany and the way in which museums select and present German legacy of dictatorship in these three sites. Alt-Rehse, Peenemünde, and Prora in the Meclkenburg-Vorpommern state of East Germany. His main themes were the counter-acting and commentary of history, the analysis and narration of the past and museums, modernity, and the duality of constant change and the preservation of Nazi sites.
Alt-Rehse, an apparently idyllic little village, little would a tourist know that on each house the name of a German city is inscribed as well as the year in which they were erected, for example “erected in the third year”. Third year of what calendar one might ask? That is, the third year of the Reich. Clearly, there is no historical commentary on this throughout the town. Dr. Philpotts has shed light on the fact that it was a village established for training the National Socialist medical elite in racial hygiene and eugenics. The small museum (Erinnerungs- Bildungs- und Begegnungsstätte) does not comment on this either in their collection. Furthermore, their website information is only accessible to native German speakers.
Peenemünde was the rocket-testing site and labour camp where the V2 rocket was designed and where space travel first occurred by sending a rocket into space in 1942. And Prora was the now derelict ‘mass-holiday’ resort that was built in the 1930s by the National Socialist regime, in which “strength through joy” was the idea.
All these three sites have in common the duality of the original purpose of the National Socialist sites and the aspect of scientific modernity. The buildings at all three of these sites were re-used post-1945 in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). For example, the National Socialist Airforce Ministry building in Berlin which now houses the Finance Ministry. Today these sites have been preserved and commemorated as museum and heritage practice.
Looking at personal and public narratives of the German collective memory and the ideological narratives, Dr. Philpotts sheds light into how the legacy of German dictatorships has been dealt with until today. Seeing that museums are active agents in constructing narratives of past German dictatorships, Dr. Philpotts suggests that they are a narration tool or a piece of literature. In a museum apart from analysing objects, you also analyse text, interactive media, and the space. It is therefore museums and heritage that construct narratives. This resonates with Sian Jone’s Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves in which she describes the materialistic and constructivist approach to object authenticity. The constructivist theory being the culturally constructed meaning of an object’s meaning as opposed to its inherent meaning.
For the sake of the AGMS course, the most relevant questions that rose from this lecture were I How can museums and heritage practices effectively comment on history in a way that counter-acts it? How do you museums and urban spaces comment on history in Germany and other countries who regimes have left a legacy? How do countries’ heritage and museum sectors deal with the legacy of a dictatorial regime?