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The German Historical Museum Aims for an Open View of the Past (June 2, 2006)

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Still, the eternal question of whether, and if so, how, we can learn from history continues to hang in the air. But there is something new, which goes largely unnoticed, probably because we have gotten used to it in the meantime: that German history also knows happy moments when liberty and unity found each other – the old dream of the revolutionaries of 1848.

In her speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed to a noteworthy coincidence, to a “moment pregnant with history at a place pregnant with history.” For the baroque arsenal housed not only Prussia’s armory, but – until 1989 – also the GDR Museum for German History, where, in strict Marxist-Leninist fashion, Thomas Müntzer and the peasants’ wars in the late Middle Ages already seemed to point toward Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz, Erich Mielke, and the Central Committee of the SED.

“Historical-dialectical materialism” it was called back then, an immutable natural law of historical development, which had achieved its climax for the time being in the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Merkel reminder her listeners explicitly of this unhappy legacy, which, in the fortunate moment of the fall of the Wall and reunification, was united dialectically and congenially with Kohl’s museum plans. Despite its ideological orientation, the collection of the GDR museum, a very practical stroke of good fortune, contained irreplaceable treasures, an abundance of rare original pieces.

Soon after the Wende of 1989/90 it was clear that a German national museum, whose preferred name in the end was “German Historical Museum,” could find its ideal home only in the old arsenal – between the Lustgarten and the Brandenburg Gate, between the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Kronprinzenpalais.

Here, according to Merkel, no “view of history” will be foisted upon anyone. Everyone should draw his own picture of the “heights and depths of days gone by.” Perhaps the largely still “divided memory” in East and West could be reconciled through historical contemplation – possibly to a view of history that is devoid of pseudo-scientific natural laws, but is “open, multifaceted, and comprehensive.” A differentiated historical consciousness that would contribute to the nation’s direction and identity.

Proud DHM director Hans Ottomeyer – “I am extremely happy, struggling for words” – pointed out that the audience for his museum, which also includes a wonderful glass addition built by Chinese-American architect [I.M.] Pei to house rotating exhibitions, is extraordinarily young.

“History is en vogue,” Obermeyer noted and highlighted the concept behind the museum once more: authenticity instead of display. Not a replacement for the study of history or the reading of hefty books, but the offer of an overall impression that is sensory, first off, and capable of triggering different thoughts and emotions in each visitor.

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