If Neil McGregor, Director of the British Museum, ever leaves these shores I will cry and cry. We visited this weekend and it is buzzing, humming and still full of wonder. (I won’t delve into the ethics or not of the Elgin Marbles going back to Athens – would the six million people who see them here each year travel there to see them. Enough of that!)
Our main purpose was to see Germany - Memories of a Nation, a six hundred year history in objects. McGregor has form: several years ago he worked with the BBC on a project telling A History of the World in 100 objects. There were a hundred 15-minute episodes, broadcast on Radio 4 based on objects from the British Museum’s collection. It was entrancing, fascinating and if you can get the podcast, worth listening to or buying the book.
The current German exhibition has been subjected to the same treatment and is his narrative is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 – I am halfway through and it is fascinating. I learned a bit of German history at school – in South Africa the unification of Germany seemed a long way away and not terribly relevant.
I knew that Martin Luther had translated the bible into German – and there is a copy hand annotated by him – but hadn’t realized that he all but created the universal written German language – pulling together numerous regional dialects and making arbitrary decisions about which words to use, wanting the text to be as relevant as possible to ordinary people. This sits a few paces away from a Gutenberg bible – the first mass produced printed book.
Each object tells a story – about the Hanseatic League to a copy of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels; a copy of Das Kapital; a porcelain rhinocerous modeled on Dürer s etching which is there as well; an Iron Cross and a stunning Bauhaus cradle.
Wonderful art from Dürer to the Bauhaus, from Meissen to Kathe Kollwitz and not so wonderful examples of the dark days of the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, including the gate from Buchenwald concentration camp. That simple gate with the words Jedem das Seine innocuously translated as “to each his own” but in this case vilely as “everyone gets what he deserves” and written on the gate so it could only be read from the inside.
The exhibition starts with news footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall and outside there is – what else – a Volkswagen Beetle! We collect magnets from art exhibitions to act as a daily visual reminder – this time it was the Dürer rhinocerous......
Finally – we are members of the British Museum so we didn’t pay to see this exhibition – you will have to pay a very small sum of between £8 - £10 – the rest of the museum is free. The subject of my next blog!