Tag Archives: digital cultural heritage

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: German-Russian Museum

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 mess hall of the Heerespionierschule as it appeared in 1945
© Foto Timofej Melnik, Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

 

The museum building today, with the flags of Germany, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine flown out front
© Photo Thomas Bruns, Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

 

The central hall of the museum building, where the surrender ceremony took place
Photo by Thomas Biggs

 

One of the monuments outside the museum, featuring a Soviet T-34 tank, as it appeared on May 8, 2018. Wreaths and flowers have been laid on the pedestal.
Photo by Thomas Biggs

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. 

A view inside the “From Casablanca to Karlshorst” exhibition
© Photo: Harry Schnitger, Museum-Berlin-Karlshorst

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 erinnerung@museum-karlshorst.de. 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. 

Screenshot of the “Voices from children and teenagers” page

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. 

Digitality and museal landscape – a contradiction? Critical thoughts on digitization in the museum

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]

virtual city model – Visitors can choose historical tours on the screen that are presented on the city model via beamer afterwords.

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.

main menu of the tour on the bombings of WWII – Visitors can access information about WWII and bombings on the city of Minden.

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 Cultural Heritage.”[i] 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 obsolete:

“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 museum visits.

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).

[ii] Deutsches Historisches Museum, Sammlungen Dokumente & Filmarchiv, (access 04/09/2020 5.20 pm).

[iii] Julia Becker, Philipp Koch, Silke Schwandt, Interview, February 26, 2020. All statements that are mentioned in this article refer to this interview.

[iv] Silke Schwandt, “Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik: Auf den Spuren von Begriffen in digitalen Korpora.“ Geschichte und Gesellschaft 44, no. 1 (2018), p. 107-134, here p. 108-109.

Bauhaus Knowledge for Everyone: The Bauhaus Bookshelf

The bauhaus bookshelf is a bilingual (German-English) online resource created by Andrea Riegel, a partner at the Düsseldorf-based communication design agency Riegel+Reichenthaler. Riegel also created Design is fine. History is mine, a popular blog on design and art history. The beautifully designed bauhaus bookshelf, a labor of love launched in 2019, combines access (for personal use) to reproductions of original Bauhaus publications with a timeline, excerpts, photographs, and other contextual information. Libraries, archives, and museums have made most of the reproductions that are gathered on the bookshelf available under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses, and users are advised to download materials from the site for personal use only. While many events and publications in 2019 celebrate the Bauhaus centennial, the bauhaus bookshelf is the only comprehensive online gateway to original Bauhaus publications and sources.

Interview with Andrea Riegel, the virtual bookshelf’s creator and curator

What inspired you to develop the bilingual bauhaus bookshelf?

Some time ago, I began teaching design history as a lecturer alongside my regular career. I had worked for various design companies during my career in communications consulting. However, studying and teaching design history was a new field for me, even though it had been a long-standing passion of mine. As an initial step, I began creating an image database for my students, and decided on using tumblr as an English-language platform in order to reach a larger, international audience. After more than five years and 15,000 posts, the blog Design is fine. History is Mine. now has around 160,000 followers from all over the world.

The Bauhaus as a German institution has always been close to my heart; it fascinated me even as a child. I grew up in Stuttgart and during my school years, our art class made annual visits to the museum where Oscar Schlemmer’s figures from the Triadic Ballet are on exhibit to discuss or draw them. That was my first encounter with the Bauhaus and it left a lasting impression, thanks to good art teachers.

Last year, I began collecting my Bauhaus discoveries on my own website; first there were a few books and interesting publications, then it became more and more of a mission: a collection of sources that can be downloaded free of charge. Bauhaus knowledge for everyone. The anniversary was an additional incentive to launch the project in a timely manner.

How did you proceed with your research? Which publications and sources were you looking for? Did you research only online or also in analog collections?

The original sources from the Bauhaus period formed the basis for the site, complemented by publications by Bauhaus members or affiliates, or other contemporary witnesses. Initially, I relied on online research, as availability on the Internet was a mandatory prerequisite. Once the framework was set and my passion could dive into details, I was able to fall back on my own small Bauhaus library. The catalogue of the 1968 Stuttgart exhibition, for example, was an excellent source, and since I also own a copy of the English-language edition, this proved to be of great help in translating the typical Bauhaus terms. This catalogue, by the way, is not available online, so sometimes you can’t get around the analog versions.

Which discoveries did you particularly enjoy, or which ones particularly surprised you?

A highlight was the first catalogue book on the exhibition in Weimar, whose title page and contents I had seen frequently. Under the umbrella of the SLUB Dresden, I finally found what I was looking for: browsing through and studying the entire work at my own pace for the first time, and the whole thing available in rather good quality, was a wonderful moment – many thanks to Dresden!

Also, the complete edition of the journal “Form,” provided by the University of Heidelberg, is a great way to immerse yourself in the bustling twenties, including the world of advertising.

I am also happy to note that my work resulted in the online publication of the original English-language version of a lecture held by Ise Gropius at Harvard in 1978. I had first discovered the text in a German translation published by the GDR magazine “form und zweck.” With the help of the Harvard archives, I received the original script, which I diligently typed before placing it on my virtual bookshelf. It is certainly worth reading the article by “Frau Bauhaus,” as she was called back then.

One of the focal points of the centennial is on highlighting the history of the women associated with the Bauhaus. What challenges did you notice in the course of your research?

Of course, the theme of the Bauhaus women is a topic close to my heart. In general, it is important to me that I introduce and revive those women in my history lectures who have been “forgotten” for centuries, be it Sappho or Sofonisba Anguissola. As far as the Bauhaus is concerned, Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and Marianne Brandt have been among the well-known personalities for quite some time, and there are new publications on Ise Gropius, for example. While studying Bauhaus books and magazines I noticed works by Hilde Hubbuch, Rosa Berger, Hilde Horn or Lotte Burckhardt, but little or no information about these individuals is to be found. Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp and the architect Wera Meyer-Waldeck are known only by small circles and deserve more attention. Initial results of a study about Michiko Yamawaki, who studied (alongside her husband Iwao, an architect) in the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus and later made the “bauhausu” known in Japan, were presented at the beginning of 2019 in the context of the anniversary. To date, not much has been known about Yamawaki in German-speaking countries. But there is widespread interest in learning more about these women, who have remained relatively unknown thus far, and in honoring their work.

Your site is not only a list of links, but also a small online exhibition with short portraits and excerpts from original publications. Which themes did you want to emphasize when conceptualizing your website?

Presenting the diverse spectrum of the Bauhaus was a matter of concern to me, at the same time, the focal points are just as important for orientation purposes. The Bauhaus was a school. Artists taught at the Bauhaus. There were many strong personalities at the Bauhaus (and thus there were conflicts). The Bauhaus was arts and crafts, theory and practice. At the Bauhaus, there were many new developments – not only in architecture or product design, but also in photography, typography, advertising, PR. While the Bauhaus in Dessau was forced to cease operations in 1933, in some ways this was just the beginning. If there is just one takeaway for visitors to my site, then my mission has already achieved a lot.

What were the particular challenges in developing and designing the chronology?

Designing the structure of the website chronologically seemed obvious and sensible, as it provides a helpful thread leading through the entire range of topics. Since I did not proceed strictly according to plan, I always ended up interspersing something thematically that was situated “in between,” which suddenly opened up different contexts – the work certainly was never boring. Visually, in this context, infographics are important to me, and they have been included, for example, on the pages “Bauhaus Chronology” or “Bauhaus Masters.” Who was active at the Bauhaus? How active and for how long? The 1968 exhibition catalog, which was compiled and coordinated by Bauhaus members still alive at the time, provided a perfect model for this infographic.

Which principles inspired your web design?

At the beginning there was no defined concept, the website was created according to the principle “learning by doing,” for fun. The layout was developed in the process; as more and more content was integrated, the appearance emerged in the process of creation. One inspiration for the graphic design was, for example, the photo of a bookshelf that Josef Albers designed in Weimar at the beginning of his Bauhaus period (reproduced in Bauhaus book no. 7/page 18). It was supposed to look just as geometric, balanced, and solid as it does. Even today, one can still learn a thing or two from Moholy-Nagy’s graphic art.

What are the challenges of transferring the historic Bauhaus design into a digital environment?

It is actually easy to design in the Bauhaus style, the modern look still corresponds to our viewing habits, “Less is More” is timeless. What matters is a clear and consistent grid as the basis, a nice and tidy arrangement, no frills. The primary colors serve as accents, or one can choose the combination black-white or black-red. Square and circle as style elements are, of course, a must, whereas I neglected the triangle, just my personal taste.

What do you particularly enjoy about curating the Bauhaus bookshelf?

It’s fun that it’s actually a story that never ends; I don’t feel that the work is “finished” yet. There are so many protagonists, texts, or events that are interesting, my folders on the hard drive are filled with content. I will expand the shelf throughout this year, at least, whenever I get to do the work. The work on this virtual library is a hobby, which is limited to the evening hours, unfortunately. It would be nice if I could earn money with it, being a freelancer, then I’d be able to work on it even more. At the same time, that’s also a lucky advantage: having the independence to work on my library as I please, while certainly serving the cause of sharing the best Bauhaus sources with the public.

Thank you!

Sources: All screenshots are from Andrea Riegel’s bauhaus bookshelf site.

Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar 1919-1923. Published by the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar and Karl Nierendorf. Weimar-München: Bauhausverlag, 1923. Cover page designed by Herbert Bayer. More information and link to the digital surrogate. 

Translation of the interview by Katharina Hering, assisted by Atiba Pertilla, Kelly McCullough, and DeepL.

A Call to Action on Digital Cultural Heritage in Germany

The GHI Washington is part of the Max Weber Foundation — German Humanities Institutes Abroad, which includes ten research institutes worldwide. Innovation in digital research, scholarship, and preservation is a central concern of the Foundation and many of its constituent institutes. This post was authored by two Max Weber Foundation colleagues: Fabian Cremer from the administrative office in Bonn and Thorsten Wübbena from the German Center for Art History in Paris (DFK Paris). — Editorial note, Href

By Fabian Cremer and Thorsten Wübbena

Mass digitization of cultural heritage objects is an urgent need: In Germany, this is the common ground on which stakeholders from multiple fields have formulated a “wake-up” call to political decision-makers. Whether perceived as the last chance for the preservation of soon-to-be-lost culture, as in Syria (e.g. the Syrian Heritage Archive Project),[1] or as an opportunity for education and inspiration through free access to museum objects (e.g. Europeana), digitization enables people to see and use cultural material beyond its physical limitations. Continue reading A Call to Action on Digital Cultural Heritage in Germany