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. 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
 “Portrait of the German National Library.” German National Library. Accessed May 18, 2020. https://www.dnb.de/EN/Ueber-uns/Portraet/portraet_node.html
Almost two years ago, the Library of Congress launched the crowdsourcing platform By the People, which invites volunteers to transcribe, review, and tag digitized images of manuscripts and typescripts from the collections of the Library of Congress. The project runs on the open source software Concordia, developed by the Library of Congress to support crowdsourced transcription projects.
Among the manuscripts made available for transcriptions are documents in German script. In a fascinating recent blog post, David B. Morris, the German Area Specialist, European Division, at the Library of Congress, discusses the art of Unlocking the Secrets of German Handwritten Documents.
The blog post will be particularly interesting for contributors to GHI’s German Heritage in Letters Project, which uses Scripto as the platform to crowdsource transcriptions of German letters, including letters written in Kurrentschrift.
On April 30, 2020, the German government began to lift some of the lockdown restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the number of new infections per day in the country decreased. Museums, along with public parks and churches, have been allowed to reopen, as long as they follow federal social distancing guidelines.1 German museums will now be able to draw in visitors once again, but the visiting experience will be very different from what it was before. The opening procedure of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, with social distancing guidelines in place, provides a demonstration of how life will continue in Germany amid the pandemic.
The Stadtgeschichtliches Museum is the municipal museum of the city of Leipzig. It consists of eight exhibition buildings spread out around the city, each containing galleries pertaining to a topic of local history or culture. The museum’s main building at the sixteenth-century Old Town Hall contains a permanent exhibit of the city of Leipzig’s cultural history from the Middle Ages to the present. The nearby Haus Böttchergäßchen, a modern building, features space for rotating exhibitions about further topics of city art and culture. This building also houses an interactive children’s museum aimed at museumgoers ten and under. FORUM 1813, located next to the city’s famous Battle of the Nations monument, is a small museum dedicated to the Napoleonic Wars and the decisive Battle of Leipzig of 1813 that saw the defeat of Napoleon in the German states. The Schillerhaus, located north of the city center, features an exhibit in a farmhouse where poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller spent a summer in 1785. The Museum Zum ArabischenCoffe Baum holds an exhibition about coffee in Germany inside the oldest coffee house in the country, which opened in 1711. The Sportmuseum, next to the Red Bull Arena, covers regional athletic history and contains one of the largest sports-related collections in all of Germany. Finally, the Alte Börse, Leipzig’s seventeenth century customs house near the Old Town Hall, hosts lectures, readings, and other events put on by the museum organization.2
Like other museums in Germany, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem closed all of its facilities to the public in March 2020. On May 7, due to the lifting of restrictions, most of the museum’s facilities have reopened. Only the Children’s Museum and the libraries in the Haus Böttchergäßchen remain closed. Because the pandemic has not fully passed, special regulations in line with government recommendations are in place for museum visitors. All exhibition spaces will limit the number of visitors allowed inside at the same time. Visitors must remain six feet (two meters) apart from museum staff and each other, and must wear adequate mouth-nose coverings. The museum is encouraging visitors to use electronic payment for admissions rather than cash, and is engaging in regular disinfecting and cleaning of the facilities. No screening is required to enter, but hand sanitizer is offered for all visitors at entrance areas. All visitors are also asked to respect hygiene measures by regularly washing their hands, coughing into their arm, and keeping their hands away from their faces.
Because of the almost two-month closure, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem postponed all of its upcoming special exhibitions and extended the duration of the exhibitions on display at the time of the closure. During the closure period, it also started a new online exhibit. Titled Hoffnungszeichen, (“Signs of Hope”), the exhibit features images and descriptions of artifacts from the museum’s collection that provided hope for city residents in past years. The first artifact exhibited was a communion chalice from 1632, a year when Leipzig suffered from a plague epidemic amid the Thirty Years’ War. The purpose of the exhibit, according to Musuem Director Dr. Anselm Hartinger, is to show that this generation of Leipzigers “are by no means the first generation to be confronted with general societal challenges, pandemics, wars and upheavals in Leipzig, [who] learned to live with them and ultimately found a strengthened new beginning.”3 The exhibit also allows visitors to submit their own stories, photographs, and comments relating to their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in Leipzig. On May 7, the museum opened a corresponding physical exhibition in the Haus Böttchergäßchen, featuring the objects the museum showed online and a selection of the digital submissions from visitors.
By following federal guidelines and encouraging visitors to do the same, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem has managed successfully reopen as the pandemic continues. In doing so it provides a model for how museums elsewhere can reopen, though time will tell if these measures will effectively prevent the virus from spreading more in lieu of a full lockdown. The new exhibition demonstrates this museum’s recognition of COVID-19 as an important historical event that will be studied extensively in the future, and an intention to contribute to its documentation within its community.
“Unsere Häuser.” Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.stadtgeschichtliches-museum-leipzig.de/besuch/unsere-haeuser/. [↩]
“Stadtgeschichtliches Museum setztdigitaleHoffnungszeichen.” leipzig.de. Stadt Leipzig, March 24, 2020. https://www.leipzig.de/news/news/stadtgeschichtliches-museum-setzt-digitale-hoffnungszeichen/ [↩]
Editorial note:Betty Schaumburg is an intern at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C. She is about to graduate with a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Her High School exchange in 2012 in Wisconsin sparked her curiosity in US history. During the course of her undergraduate studies, she also participated in the exchange program of Heidelberg University and spent her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. There, she narrowed her historical interest to the post-Civil War era, Reconstruction and the New South, which contributed to the topic of her Bachelor Thesis.
When I registered my Bachelor Thesis in the beginning of March, I had little idea how my research would be impacted by the looming threat of Covid-19. What started out as the exciting final stage of my Undergraduate Studies, turned out to be a rather complicated and uncertain process. Not only have near to all vital public research institutions closed, but even online book stores showed great delays in literature deliveries. As a direct result, many students who are currently in the same position as me, as well as fellow researchers who are in the midst of their projects, have found themselves stranded and exposed to these unconventional times. This entry aims to describe how in the age of a pandemic I personally have adapted to the unusual circumstances in the duration of my research and utilized digital research in the midst of this Covid-19.
During the course of my academic exchange year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, my interest in the Lost Cause mentality in the US South has manifested itself so greatly that I knew I would incorporate this topic into my Bachelor thesis. The fact that the Civil War outcome still has such a tremendous influence not only on political discourses around the country, but also on the academic sphere of universities and their students, triggered my interest in the topic of my thesis, which is dealing with North Carolina universities’ response to the rising opposition against Civil War remnants on these campuses. Since my Bachelor thesis primarily focuses on US soil, I narrowed my sources down to the American periphery.
First, I researched newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post for articles discussing rising protests on North Carolina campuses surrounding Confederate monuments to get an idea about the national significance of these debates. What struck me most was the deal the University of Chapel Hill made with the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans concerning UNC’s controversial Silent Sam statue on their campus. According to the New York Times, the university reached a temporary settlement of $2.5 million with the division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to remove the statue from campus, in return for the division to take care of the monument. Immediately the questions “How influential are Confederate groups on North Carolina campuses? How do campuses address their controversial monuments?” came into mind.
Consequently, I started searching on UNC’s website for internal sources about their statue and was successful. UNC offers free access to archive.org and their annual Alumni Reviews, which also contain articles about the completion of Silent Sam. While the reviews about the monument and newspaper articles of the revealing gave me a broad overview about how people at the time perceived the statue, the actual dedication speech by Julian Carr in 1913, exposing racist content, is available for free on the internet. As a result, I started to search through selected campuses’ websites for released articles addressing controversial names of campus buildings, statues, and their dedication speeches, which led me to successfully retrieve several documents. Then, on the other hand, I researched statements released by the University administration addressing either the removal of named statues, or plans to regard them as historical artifacts to create a direct comparison of different perspectives throughout the University system. However, while it was difficult for me to find out how exactly the Confederate groups influenced or not influenced those decisions, I at least able to collect a spectrum of the statue’s and building’s timeline and the University’s standpoint on them.
Next, I was able to borrow two important books before the shut down of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro library that contextualize the history of Confederate groups and the manifestation of the Lost Cause into society. While they enhanced my understanding of the movement behind the Lost Cause in general, they did not suffice to answer my first question. I also still needed about three other sources whose delivery were delayed by a full month due to Covid-19. I knew that due to the delay of the books I had to focus solely on online resources. I needed to dig deeper to analyze campus relationships with Confederate groups. That is why I now shifted my focus to the website newspapers.com, where many newspaper articles published over a span of centuries are available in digital form and continue to find the right resources that bring me closer to the answer to my questions by utilizing the online resources that UNC provides on their website.
Another important finding I made on the UNC website was North Carolina’s General Assembly’s decision to categorize Civil War monuments as “monuments of remembrance” resulting in the statues’ exemption from removal. This hence created the intentional exclusion of marginalized groups on campus and muffling of the Civil War monument opposition. I plan on researching more about the General Assembly’s rulings and impacts on campus life.
Even though I had planned to use the sources the Library of Congress and UNC library provide for visitors, I have thus far gathered a detailed overview of critical questions vital to my Bachelor Thesis. Covid-19 prevented me from finding sufficient secondary source material concerning the history of the intermingling between Confederate groups and campuses, but UNC nevertheless provides a great range of digital sources concerning their own controversial history with “Silent Sam”. Overall, Universities in North Carolina do a good job in opening up the debate surrounding the Lost Cause and fill in some of the blanks. The pandemic has shown how easy a delay in research can be, and I was thus able to extend the deadline for my thesis to make use of my ordered books and the libraries once they open up again.
 Michael Levinson, “Toppled but Not Gone: UNC Grapples Anew with the Fate of Silent Sam,” New York Times, February 14, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/us/unc-silent-sam-statue-settlement.html (Accessed May 5, 2020).
 UNC Alumni Review, “The Soldiers Monument Unveiled”, June 1913, p. 184, http://www.carolinaalumnireview.com/carolinaalumnireview/191306/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=184#pg8 (Accessed May 13, 2020).
 Julian S. Carr, “Unveiling of Confederate Monument at University. June 2, 1913” in the Julian Shakespeare Carr Papers #141, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://hgreen.people.ua.edu/transcription-carr-speech.html (Accessed May 13, 2020).
 Adam Lovelady, “Statues and Statutes: Limits on Removing Monuments from Public Property,” August 22nd 2017, https://canons.sog.unc.edu/statues-statutes-limits-removing-monuments-public-property/ (Accessed May 13, 2020).
Figure 1: Angum Check and Tim Osborn, “We Tried to Peacefully Protest. The the University Shut Us Down,” The Nation, September 12, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/we-tried-to-peacefully-protest-then-the-university-shut-us-down/ (Accessed May 15, 2020).
Figure 2: UNC Alumni Review, “The Soldiers Monument Unveiled”, June 1913, p. 184, http://www.carolinaalumnireview.com/carolinaalumnireview/191306/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=184#pg8 (Accessed May 15, 2020).
As the anniversary of V-E Day arrives, another museum in Berlin finds itself changing the way it observes. The German-Russian Museum is the center of May 8th commemorations in Berlin. In 2020, this historic museum is taking action to ensure that its commemoration is accessible even from the home.
The German-Russian Museum is housed in a circa-1936 building in Berlin-Karlshorst. The building began its life as the mess hall of a Wehrmacht military engineer school, but became known internationally on May 8, 1945 as the place of Nazi Germany’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. In a ceremony held in the school’s central hall, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht signed the German Instruments of Surrender. The document officializing the capitulation was accepted and signed by Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov and British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, with Generals Carl Spaatz of the United States and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny of France signing as witnesses. The building subsequently served as the headquarters of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, and in the 1960s became the “Museum of Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War.” The museum was organized and operated by the Soviet military and presented the history of the German-Soviet war. In the late 1990s, the museum was redone in a collaboration between German, Russian, and Ukranian historians to chronicle German-Soviet relations between the Russian Revolution and the end of the Cold War while retaining a focus on World War II. It underwent a second revision in 2013, with upgrades to the permanent displays. The museum’s centerpiece is a recreation of the “Capitulation Hall” where the surrender ceremony took place, made to appear as it did in 1945. In addition to the main gallery, there are also exhibits about the building’s history, including the preserved offices of the Soviet military administration. Some exhibits from the museum’s Soviet era have also been preserved, displaying how the history was presented during the Cold War era. Outside on the museum grounds there is an extensive collection of Soviet armor and artillery, as well as monuments erected by the Soviets.
The German-Russian Museum usually hosts a large commemoration event every May 8th. Dignitaries from Russia visit the museum, and there is a concert and a serving of Russian food and drinks. A wreath-laying ceremony takes place at the monuments outside. The museum planned for an expanded ceremony this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, including the opening of a new exhibition, a visit from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and visits from representatives of all the former Allied powers, to take place over several days. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions, all of these events had to be canceled. However, due to the German government lifting some of the restrictions on May 4th, the German-Russian Museum will be able to hold a reduced ceremony. The Capitulation Hall will be open to visitors between 10:00 am and 8:00 pm on May 8th through 10th. The exhibit galleries will remain closed. Outside there will be an outdoor exhibition about the surrender, similar to the larger one that was supposed to take place on Pariser Platz. Berlin Mayor Michael Müller will visit the museum on May 8th, and there will be a smaller wreath-laying ceremony later that day.
The museum is also taking measures to make sure visitors can view its content from home. Most notable is their handling of the new exhibition that was to debut for the anniversary. Titled “From Casablanca to Karlshorst,” the exhibition traces the progress of the Second World War from the 1943 Casablanca Conference, where the Allied powers determined that an “unconditional surrender” from Germany would be the only acceptable means of concluding the war, to Germany’s unconditional surrender at Berlin-Karlshorst in 1945. The exhibit follows two themes: the efforts of the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and the escalation of violence in Europe by the Nazis that led up to the end of the war. Notable artifacts on display were to be a Russian-Orthodox liturgical book, recovered from a village in Belarus destroyed by German occupiers, and a tree trunk from the site of the Below Forest temporary camp with the names of Soviet POWs carved into it. The museum has created a virtual tour of the exhibition, accessible at https://tour.art.vision/deutsch-russisches-museum-de-en-fr.html. Using software similar to Google Maps Street view, visitors can go through the entire exhibition. All of the exhibit text, presented in German, Russian, and English, is clear and readable. The Capitulation Hall and Marshal Zhukov’s office are also accessible in the virtual tour.
The museum also has a page on their website dedicated the 75th anniversary at https://www.museum-karlshorst.de/index.php?id=146&L=1. This page features selected photographs from the museum’s archives related to the surrender, more information and highlighted artifacts from the new exhibition, and pictures and testimonies sent by present-day children from Germany, the former Soviet Union, and the former Western Allies as answers to the question “What does World War II mean for you?” Visitors to the page can submit their own answer to that question via the email address email@example.com. They can also partake in an online poll asking the same question, with the options of “Victory,” “Defeat,” “Liberation,” “New Beginning,” and “Meaningless” for answers. The content is all available in German, Russian, and English, with the photograph pages also available in French and Polish.
Though a large-scale on-site commemoration of the 75th anniversary of V-E Day is not possible this year, the German-Russian Museum has made sure that the occasion will still be observed, and has made their contributions accessible to a worldwide audience through its online platform.
Editorial note: Thomas Biggs is an intern at the German Historical Institute Washington DC. He is a graduate of the George Washington University (2019) with a BA in International Affairs and minors in History and German Studies. He studied in Berlin for his junior year spring semester with the IES Abroad Language and Area Studies Program in collaboration with the Humboldt University of Berlin. During this semester he visited the Allied Museum Berlin as part of his coursework. His areas of study included security policy, US and German history, and the development of German democracy between 1815 and the present.
Every museum’s intention is to attract visitors: A museum wants people to experience the stories and objects it has on display, with the hope that they learn something new or understand something greater. Unique exhibitions and significant artifacts are what convince people to visit a specific museum location. The experience of being in the physical location, being able to see images or objects, hear, sounds, and sometimes even smell smells associated with a particular idea or period, is what drives people to visit a museum location. Information today is more accessible than ever, be it in books, on television, or on the internet. Yet people still visit museums, and million-dollar museum projects keep opening, because there is something so unique about the museum experience that cannot be conveyed through any other medium. It is a full immersion in a topic, in a time, and in a place. The COVID-19 crisis has presented a great problem for museums, as stay-at-home orders have made it impossible for them to perform this necessary function of attracting and educating visitors at their specialized locations. To stay in touch with their visitors and present their collections without opening museum buildings, museums have turned to the internet. New technology has allowed for innovative ways to bring a museum to one’s home.
The Allied Museum in Berlin is one such institution facing the issues brought on by COVID-19. The museum presents the history of the three Western Allied powers’ (Great Britain, France, and the United States) military presence in West Berlin and West Germany during the Cold War. It interprets the daily lives and missions of the Allied troops, as well as the impact their presence had on Germany. The museum’s collections hold scores of related artifacts and documents. Its physical location at Clayallee 135, in the former American Sector, is intricately tied to the history it presents. The museum makes use of two former American base buildings, the Outpost Theater and the Nicholson Memorial Library, to house its galleries. In between the two buildings is a plaza displaying the museum’s large artifacts. The most popular of these is the British Handley Page Hastings cargo aircraft, a participant in the Berlin Airlift. On Sundays between April and October, visitors can pay one Euro to climb inside the aircraft, take a look into the cockpit, and view a short film about the airlift. The aircraft is effective at drawing families to the museum on Sundays and is one source of much-appreciated donations for the otherwise state-funded museum.
Since the Allied Museum closed on March 14, visitors cannot experience it in any of these ways. All of the museum’s planned events for the foreseeable future have been cancelled. The museum’s website, alliiertenmuseum.de, has a posted notice about the indefinite closure. Otherwise the website remains largely as it did before march, featuring summaries of the exhibit galleries and an entry about highlighted objects. The “Collections” section offers descriptions of the museum’s collection areas and articles about three “highlighted” artifacts selected on a rotating basis. Historical information and statistics about the Berlin Airlift and denazification are also featured. The museum’s events list has been updated to announce the cancellations.
Fortunately, the Allied Museum is still working to stay in contact with interested patrons, and is making use of new ways to engage the public while they are sheltering in place. The museum has launched a new YouTube channel (titled “Alliiertenmuseum”) featuring German-language video tours. The channel currently has four videos, all posted within the last month. Three of them highlight “favorite objects” on display in the museum galleries, with a visitor guide telling in-depth stories about each. The fourth video features a “behind-the-scenes” look at the museum’s archival facilities, showing how artifacts and documents are catalogued. The museum plans to upload more videos in the coming weeks. The museum’s Facebook page is similarly engaging audiences by posting historical images and photographs of more of the museum’s artifacts, all accompanied by German and English descriptions. The museum will post all further information about museum activities during the pandemic to this page.
May 8, 2020 will mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (V-E Day), and the Allied Museum had plans to observe the occasion. There was to be an open-air exhibition by the Brandenburg Gate about the end of the war, featuring contributions from the Allied Museum and other Berlin museums that document this period in history. Sadly, this exhibition had to be canceled as well. Allied Museum Director Jürgen Lillteicher states that the majority of the exhibition will now be shown online instead. Dr. Lillteicher hopes that interviews recorded for the exhibition will be made available online as well. Information about this project can be found at kulturprojekte.berlin/projekt/75-jahre-kriegsende/ and on the Facebook page “75 Jahre Kriegsende.”
The museum had additionally planned a film series to be shown at the museum, featuring works of cinema about events between D-Day and V-E Day. Instead, posts about the planned featured films are being added to the Facebook page, so individuals can watch them at home. The museum also intended to host events covering the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the Allied forces. Posts about this topic are being made for the Facebook page as well, with the most recent one featuring the liberation of Sachsenhausen by the Soviets on April 22, 1945.
The Allied Museum has found ways to engage potential visitors even though no one can visit the museum site itself. Its solutions, utilizing familiar social media platforms, are simple yet effective. People wanting to learn about the postwar period or what the museum itself has to offer can do so by utilizing these platforms, even after the pandemic has passed.
When visiting a museum, one expects to encounter
and interact with historical objects, artefacts and their materiality.
Especially after the turn of the millennium, museums increasingly introduced (and
embraced) new digital components. Today, audio guides, for example, have become
indispensable for many institutions. According to the National Museum of
American History, it has more than 1.7 million objects “and a 22,000 linear
feet of archival documents”[i] in
its collection. The Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) in
Berlin has also more than 60,000 historical documents and more than 900 movie
clips from the past.[ii]
These are too many historical objects and media to exhibit on the walls of
museums. Therefore, museums have been discussing and experimenting with ways of
using digital technology to make objects from their archives and storage
facilities more visible. Would you expect that there will be a next level of
presenting museal artefacts digitally to visitors?
The Mindener Museum in North-Rhine Westphalia is one example for a fruitful combination of a museum as a haptic room with digital methods. Since 2018 the head of the museum, Philipp Koch, has been cooperating with Prof. Silke Schwandt from Bielefeld University whose research interests include digital history and humanities. This cooperation offers students the possibility of thinking creatively and of developing their own digital projects about museal artefacts of the museum. In the past, the students developed a new tour for the digital city model related to the bombings of Minden by the allied forces in World War II and produced 3D scans and prints of a crest from the 17th century. Currently, there is one group, which creates an escape tour, inspired by the traditional experience design from the gaming scene. Julia Becker, an expert of experience design, supports the escape room project and shares her knowledge with the students. In this museum the areas of narrative history, which is making the past come alive with digital elements, and the traditional historical craft of researching the historical artefacts and contents overlap.[iii]
The limited option for showing historical objects is a common problem for every museum. Therefore, Philipp Koch acknowledges the value of digitization, especially since it enables the display of treasures from the archives to visitors. Digitization can open up access to objects for researchers and historically interested people alike. It supports the preservation and display of historical files on the one hand, while pushing the pedagogical work on the other. Hence, digitization facilitates access for individuals to historical objects and chronological processes and supports the understanding of complex structures. Yet, digitization also has its limits, some of which are demonstrated by the example of the digital city model: The digital tour of the bombings in WWII needs more layers of telling than the mere presentation of the impacts of the bombings on the screen. Needed is an accurate and well-researched textual introduction to the historical events, now provided on the screen and of course ideally through a guide. Without these additional layers of explanation, historical education through digitization will not be as effective.
Indeed, it requires more than just digital
objects on a screen. Experts describe the way of dealing with digitization in
the cultural, museal field as “Digital
The possibilities opened through digitization call for the discussion of visualization,
presentation, and publication of digital artefacts. For Silke Schwandt, digital
history is an evolving field of historical research that offers a wide array of
application in museums. Therefore, digital representations such as interactive
maps or 3D models of historical artefacts like in the Mindener Museum, allow
visitors to interact directly with the displayed materials in ways that were
formerly unavailable. Certainly, the opportunities of digitization are wide.
You can think of using tablets to provide tours through the museum, virtual
reality apps on the smart phone to bring portraits to life, or 360° experiences
to set visitors into a historical scenery for example. In addition,
digitization reduces the risks of damaging the originals, since visitors explore
historical manuscripts on the screen. Imagine that you can scroll through the
Declaration of Independence or letters from Bismarck virtually. Nevertheless, Silke
Schwandt pleads for an intersectional dealing with digital elements. Most
applications of digital tools in historical research, and the museal sector as
well, do not make human interaction, interpretation, and communication
“Historical information or insight tends to be more complicated than can be shown in a simple diagram. Historians stress the fact that there usually is more than one answer to a research question, more than one interpretation of the past. To meet these demands, digital representations in museums, or in any other context for that matter, should therefore be interactive in a way that allows the visitor to see more than one linear interpretation and maybe even arrive at their own interpretations after interacting with the material.”
What does experience design mean in a
museal context? As Julia Becker says, in most people’s minds, the general idea
of visiting a museum is being a passive spectator who gets to see exhibits and
gains information. Therefore, application of experience design to this practice
literally could turn visits into experiences that speak to several senses and
put the human at the centre. The visitor would become a participant and their
once passive position changes to a more active mode of participation in the
experience. If a museum is able to tell stories and has the financial means to
try out something new designing an experience for a museum can establish a
memorable user journey, even if it breaks with traditional expectations for
According to experts that are mentioned
above, here are some pieces of advice (or guidelines) for doing digital history
at the museum:
First, you should reflect about what digitization could yield for your museum. Digital elements in the exhibition can be a useful supplement, visitors still come to experience history primarily by looking at historical artefacts. Therefore, one should evaluate how much the museum on the one hand, and the visitors on the other, can benefit from digitization. Your curators should keep in mind that technology needs frequent maintenance and technical problems can arise every time. One should ensure that there is sufficient personnel capacity to manage failures in case. The Mindener Museum, for example, has its technician Mr. Wurm who is responsible for the digital city model. If there are problems with the image resolution or with the beamers on the ceiling – he is the one who fixes them.
Second, digital objects need thorough and accurate historical research as a basic preparation for their display in a museum context. The digitized objects or experienced stories may be as astonishing as ever, but no one will benefit from it without solid information about the historical content: ‘What kind of an object is it?’, ‘In what time period was it produced?’, ‘How has it survived over time?’ and even more questions should be asked and answered about an object. Of course, this can be very difficult and sluggish if you do not find the information at first sight. But to set the object into context makes it interesting for visitors. They want to know the content of the presented objects to connect this background information with knowledge they already have. Therefore, the basis should always be historical research by professionally trained historians. Without ensuring the accuracy of the historical context, the museum would fail its educational mission.
Third, the museum needs financial means for digitization. That can be digitized objects on a screen or ideally, experience design. Either need capacity in manpower and money for preparation and curation over time. The goal should be that digitization will be an additional enriching element in the exhibition and not a handicap. Remember that every digital project needs time and money to develop it from the first idea to the fully finished product. In addition and in the best case, every museum should have an in-house technician like Mr. Wurm. Besides the care of the technique, this person can share his or her knowledge with your curators to arrange technical solutions for your grand digital vision. The group of students who developed an additional virtual tour for the city model was in close exchange with the technician of the Mindener Museum to see if the historical maps fit on the screen, if the resolution of the image is good enough for presentation, and if the beamer lights are set correctly.
Fourth, while experience designs have to fulfill historical standards, they also have to adequately represent the complexity of story structures and narratives. Making history alive via digital tours through the museum or via virtual reality, for example, usually requires curated historical research. If experience design is interesting for your museum, curators should keep in mind that all playful and historical elements are connected to another and that the historical content must be worked out carefully. For example, the group who is currently working on the digital tour through the Mindener museum is still struggling with the conflict between the playability of historical stories. Is it allowed to change the historical facts of the escape tour just to provide a positive end and a feeling of success for the visitors? This question is not as simple as is looks at first sight and requires a huge amount of reflection on the side of the students. Beyond that, one has to take into consideration the different types of experiencing. Which mode fits to your historical artifacts and story?
At last, one has to live with gaps in historical storytelling. Every historian stood for the challenge that some questions stay unanswered. This is okay and the risk of historians, who should stick to what they know. (In that case you should only spread proven knowledge.) Do not take the trap of inventing historical fiction just for entertaining. The 3D-printed crest from the 17th century has shown how difficult it can be to deal with physical objects in a digital world. While the student read a lot of literature, it turned out that only a few pieces of proven information could be provided by the museal documentation and the research. Of course, he would have loved to share deeper knowledge of this crest. But in the end, he had no other choice than to stick to the information he could prove if he wanted to contribute to the educational task of the museum. The fact that there remain open questions about objects such as the 17th crest that even experts cannot answer remain is shared with the visitors.
If you plan digital or playful elements in
your museum with these thoughts in mind, it could be a great opportunity to
take the next step into to the 2020s. Exhibitions and educational work can
support the ways by which museum visitors experience history in different ways.
It can set them into the view of an historical character; it can open up historical
files and hidden objects in the archives; it can give visitors the opportunity
to experience history in an unexpected way. In short, while it should be
carefully prepared and conceptually balanced, it gives visitors the chance to experience
history in more than just one traditional way.
[i] National Museum of American History
Behring Center, Collections,
(access 04/09/2020 5.10 pm).