Virtual Exhibitions at the German National Library

Julia Wycital is in her final semester in the American Studies BA program at the University of Heidelberg. Her interest in history was sparked early, during her school years, since she enjoyed reading and learning about Ancient Greek legends and myths. In 2018/2019 she was an exchange student at the University of New Mexico, where she developed a strong interest in US immigration policy and its history. Her other historical interests include the period of the Second World War. Julia Wycital completed a (partially remote) internship at the GHI in the spring of 2020. Href was lucky to recruit her as an author for our blog series on the impact of COVID 19 on cultural heritage institutions in Germany and beyond.

During the current COVID crisis, people around the world have felt more physically isolated than ever. Yet, digital media have offered an exciting range of experiences to explore history in a virtual environment. For example, the German National Library currently offers seven virtual exhibitions in German and English accessible from anywhere around the world. From the exhibition “5000 years of media history online,” in which you can learn about the importance of Egyptian hieroglyphs as one of the first written systems of humanity, to the exhibition “Arts in Exile,” online visitors have the opportunity to still engage with history as COVID-19 has forced cultural institutions to close their doors this spring temporarily. The German National Library (DNB) has been collecting and archiving over 30 million media items in the German language since 1913.[1] While education and culture are the responsibility of the individual German states, there exists one national library is decentralized in its structure, with two branches, one in Frankfurt am Main and one in Leipzig. This is a result of the postwar German division and reunification.

I took a closer look at two of the seven virtual exhibitions, both of which have been permanent exhibitions at the German National Library before. The exhibition “100th anniversary of World War 1” is the reopening of the First World War Collection of 1914, which was first set up by the Deutsche Bücherei, one of the antecedent institutions of the DNB and founded 1912 in Leipzig. This exhibition showcases different aspects of everyday life’s hardships during the war, including the blockade of food imports or the propaganda used on young German schoolchildren. Visitors of the online exhibit can switch between eight categories. For example, the “Media World” and “People” during the First World War are offering information in the form of a gallery and an introductory text on the subject. In the category “Collecting the War,” the audience learns that in 1914 many believed that the war would soon end victoriously for Germany. That is why such a numerous and diverse range of documents from this time have been preserved. In this category, the visitor has access to newspapers, posters, photographs or a map titled “The ships sunk by our submarines according to position and number” from 1918 that were circulated during the war. Moreover, the category “Propaganda,” contains, among other propaganda material, digitalized drawings from German satirical journals. Before the start of the war, these journals were an outlet for social and political criticism of German society, but eventually they had to submit to the official war narrative. Overall, the exhibition offers significant insights into life during the First World War.

Compared to the First World War exhibition, the virtual exhibition “Exile. Experience and Testimony” concentrates on the process of emigration during the Nazi regime, including the Second World War. It is usually exhibited permanently at the Frankfurt branch of the German National Library. On the DNB website, the exhibition is structured similarly to the First World War exhibition; three different categories inform visitors about the actual process of escaping, biographies of eight exiles, and countries of refuge. One part of the display of the escaping process highlights the support system the refugees needed to leave their country successfully. The exhibition then shows documents and photographs that were often connected to international aid organizations. They forged passports if the refugee had no valid identity papers or gave information on escape routes. Moreover, using a letter of Sigmund Freud from August 7, 1938, the exhibit shows that renowned individuals also lent their names to organizations such as the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom. In the category “People in Exile” the DNB introduces among others the Austrian lawyer and librarian Clementine Zernik, whose license to practice law was revoked because of her Jewish background when the annexation of Austria in 1938 occurred. Zernik then emigrated to the United States but could not follow her career as a lawyer and instead started working for the group Austrian Action that supported Austrian emigrants. The virtual visitor can take a look at her document of disbarment for a lawyer or at her box with mementos, such as postcards, tickets, etc. from Vienna. This virtual exhibition profoundly communicates the complexity of exile between the years of 1933 and 1945.

The virtual exhibitions of the German National Library are a great way of curating museum content to a large audience during a time when visiting in person is not an option. The two exhibitions that I presented in this blog post are informative resources for learning about the First World War in all its variety, and about the phenomenon of exile during the Nazi era. But one problem of these online exhibits is that they mostly consist of editorial content illustrated with pictures of documents. They cannot replace the firsthand experience of encountering documents or objects in a permanent exhibition and feeling the history behind them. Nevertheless, the online exhibits of the German National Library offer educational spaces to engage with German history and individual biographies and fates


[1] “Portrait of the German National Library.” German National Library. Accessed May 18, 2020.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
juliawycital (May 29, 2020). Virtual Exhibitions at the German National Library. h r e f. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from