Think Piece

Making German history safe

by John Raimo

Can a museum exhibition curate itself? So far as concerns history, the answer would seem to be not quite. Here I am referring to Neil MacGregor’s work at the British Museum, namely Germany: Memories of a Nation—A 600-year history in objects (2014-2015). The show builds on the earlier project A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), a popular radio-series and an accompanying book which draw upon the museum’s holdings. Plaques tied the latter series in to the permanent collection; the former, while also furnishing broadcasts and a book (if not quite an exhibition catalog), came into being as a proper show. The wide response to these projects hint that a trend might be afoot (at least so far as one-upping one hundred objects goes). Objects drawn from a nation or wider field might furnish their own sort of accessible—that is, quite literally concrete—stories of the most open-ended sort.

‘Narrative’ does not quite fit to describe this most basic, traditional tension in museum work. We can leave aside questions of selection, omission, contextualization, and even marketing for a moment. Where does a history told via objects exactly lead us—or what does it lead us past? A linear chronological arrangement or curation would prove hard-pressed to escape a simple progressive history of technology or, perhaps, a most interesting history of global exchanges. It would not give its viewers a material history per say of a country. The most heterogeneous collection drawing from the most disparate sources, regions, and times might also lend the illusion of encompassing inclusion. Yet this too would not quite amount to a social, economic, intellectual, cultural, gender, or even political history in the stricter terms used by historians. Rather, object-driven history allows its curators a neat side-stepping of these issues on the basis of its rhetoric. Cue rather more poetic language: there is a proliferation, constellation, converging, parallelizing, overlaying, implication, and so on of narratives. Far be it from curators to conspicuously impose a historical narrative themselves. (I hope our readers can chime in on the direction of museum studies today on just this note.)

This is a particular problem with German history. MacGregor and his team can be commended for the range of items they have selected for the exhibit. (Who ever knew about Goethite before?) The attention paid to the Trümmerfrauen seemed particularly deft in gauging their iconographic importance both in West and East Germany (see MacGregor’s broadcast here). I also grant a good deal of credit to any curators willing to display several maps and to dedicate cases to numismatics within exhibitions intended to be blockbusters. But the approach they chose only further complicates the history at hand. How easily can past historiography be dismissed when presenting German history to a general public?

The exhibit organizes itself upon the thesis that German history is “inherently fragmented.” Hence the (today de rigueur) ambiguity of the exhibition title: these are different memories of an “unstable” nation in geographical, historical, and political terms. For the exhibition’s curators, continuities and discontinuities frustrate strict chronological accounts. Accordingly, the chosen items readily fall under themes such as “Germans no more,” documenting German-communities in both the former East Prussia and Czechoslovakia for instance.

History as told by the objects, all the objects, and nothing but the objects obscures more than it reveals. In the absence of any chronology whatsoever, the thematic approach coupled with the impartiality promised by the items more often than not fails to invoke much history at all for those coming to it for the first time. For example, a cart used by East Prussian refugees in the wake of the Second World War strikes a touching note—but how well can we understand its importance without reference to the war and the present-day controversies surrounding the German Vertriebene (refugees or expelled persons—this problem of translation alone hints at the politics involved)? Or to broach an overwhelmingly large topic in as concise a manner as possible, just where does one place the Third Reich and the Holocaust in German history? A small exhibit dedicated to the gates of a concentration camp fails rather more than it even should. To my mind, the show ultimately amounts to a single history of Germany—albeit one defanged of difficulty or the need for much interpretation at all.

This is not a call for a museum rehearsal of professional historiographical debates or for a full-throated embrace of historical politics. We don’t need to refight the Sonderweg controversy. And indeed, I would here guess that the British Museum exhibit has been conceived as an implicit rejoinder to the overwhelmingly crass and politicized exhibit at the Louvre ostensibly dedicated to German art. Happily enough, however, some ready counterexamples come forward. The wonderful Time, Conflict, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern (with an excellent accompanying catalog) forgoes a strict chronology without leaving aside politics or more tightly-focused questions of national memory. (The exhibit’s focus on catastrophes and its ranging across several national histories affords another discussion, however.) More broadly-speaking, French museums such as those at Peronne or Caen prove models of involving such historians as Jay Winter (at the former) as curators themselves. The museum-going public rises to any perceived challenge that a more academic-driven historical exhibit might pose.

I look forward to writing here soon about another exhibit, La Collaboration 1940-1945 (about Vichy France), put on by the Archives Nationales. The questions there should prove just as substantial. But to return to the British museum and that ambiguous title once again, one stuck with me: just whose memories of which nation were to be seen there? I can’t help thinking that I and crowds of other people encountered a lot of objects, fewer memories—intact, accessible, or otherwise—and even less history in any graspable sense.


Think Piece

The History Manifesto and Its Discontents

by Emily Rutherford

David Armitage and Jo Guldi published their History Manifesto online and in print in October, and since then the critiques have begun to roll in. There has been plenty of chatter on Twitter and an interesting set of responses from a group of graduate students and faculty at the Modern British Studies program at the University of Birmingham. But most trenchant to date is a response from historians of Britain Deborah Cohen (Northwestern) and Peter Mandler (Cambridge), shortly to be published in the American Historical Review with Armitage and Guldi’s reply.

Cohen and Mandler take sharp aim at the “fantasy” (8 – page numbers refer to the draft PDF published on Cohen’s personal website) that they argue the History Manifesto has constructed, of history’s increasing overspecialization and declining relevance. Their primary criticisms are twofold. First, they take issue with Armitage and Guldi’s interpretation of historian Benjamin Schmidt’s data about the last several decades of history PhDs, as well as other evidence Armitage and Guldi present in order to suggest that dissertations’ horizons have contracted since the 1960s. In fact, they write, the last four decades of AHR book reviews show that “There’s no evidence either that historians concentrated on long-horizon research before 1968 or that there was a fall off afterwards, when the great shrinkage supposedly began” (4). This, therefore, undermines the urgency of Armitage and Guldi’s central claim that history needs a return to large-scale, narrative, political history in order to reestablish its relevance to policymakers and world events. Second, Cohen and Mandler turn, as many others have, to Armitage and Guldi’s representation of “microhistory” as the antithesis of the “longue durée” history they advocate. Cohen and Mandler write that Armitage and Guldi’s “microhistory” is a caricature, incorporating the traditional definition of microhistory as well as an “overflowing grab-bag of other sorts of history” (7), such as those of race, class, and gender, which in fact have not confined themselves to short time-scales. They point to specific instances in which these “new” forms of history have had precisely the concrete effects upon policy for which Armitage and Guldi wish: such as the Lawrence v. Texas case which overturned sodomy law, in which a pivotal historians’ amicus brief drew on kinds of history which Armitage and Guldi disparage. Finally, Cohen and Mandler point out that, whatever the role of historians in policy, history retains a serious hold among a diverse public in large part because of the ever-widening range of subjects and approaches it embraces, and that this is as much or more a claim for its significance (and success) than any crisis narrative focused on policy.

Whatever the merits of Armitage and Guldi’s and Cohen and Mandler’s respective stances, what becomes clear in this exchange is the significance of intellectual-historical approaches to finding a role for our discipline in today’s society and polity. Cohen and Mandler’s critique rests on their claim that the intellectual genealogy Armitage and Guldi trace, of history’s declining relevance through its increasing specialization and increasing marginality, is a spurious and lazy one (see e.g. p. 5). In calling Armitage and Guldi to task not for their political solutions to the alleged humanities crisis but for their methodology as professional historians (at least one of whom does have a background in intellectual history), Cohen and Mandler made a choice. That choice may turn out to shift the terms of how the History Manifesto is being debated in an interesting way, away from rhetoric about Crisis and (as happened in the course of arguments twenty years ago about the linguistic turn) back to how we as specialists practice our craft. As historian Rachel Hope Cleves wrote on Twitter last week, and as the master’s students at Birmingham who engaged with the History Manifesto this autumn have already demonstrated, this discussion is well on its way to becoming a key set of readings for students learning to think about controversies within the discipline.

From the Birmingham blog to Mandler and Cohen, the major published engagement with the History Manifesto thus far has come from historians trained in the British field. Indeed, Armitage and Guldi were both trained as British historians as well. As someone who works in (and defends the relevance of) the British national field, I’m interested in what this says about the field and its relevance to historical practice more widely. What about the issues the History Manifesto raises would interest British historians in particular? Part of it may stem from the crises this field in particular has confronted in recent decades, as British historians have striven to adapt to a historiographical landscape in which the centrality of the British Isles cannot be taken for granted and have reimagined themselves as historians of empire, Europe, or the Atlantic world. Part of it also may stem from British history’s long-held interest in social history and problems of class: Cohen and Mandler’s criticisms touch in part on the possibility of elitism inherent in Armitage and Guldi’s implication that policymakers, rather than the public, are a historian’s appropriate target audience, and a similar tension was present in the Birmingham responses (and some comments Armitage made about them at a History Manifesto event I attended at Columbia University on November 17, 2014). These days, “impact” and “public engagement” are built into how academics at UK universities must represent their research to the government, and so perhaps such questions are felt more keenly by those whose careers are in or connected to the UK.

The issue of what it means to be a historian of (modern) Britain is one which I hope to think about on this blog in the months to come, and the History Manifesto debate may well help to frame that question. It has always seemed to me, though, that historians who teach in universities have their public-engagement factor built in: won’t we all be asked at some point in our careers whether we can teach the survey?