Deutsches Historisches Museum

It’s Sunday so that means it’s museum day! I haven’t been to a museum in ages! (No, Vienna’s Gemäldegalerie doesn’t count, trying to charge 5€ for the ‘privilege’ of taking photos.) This week it’s the Deutsches Historisches Museum in the Zeughaus on Unter den Linden, which I’ve been to before, but not for the permanent exhibition.

I’ve started to grow an interest in Mediæval—broadly—north-west Europe, the bits that became Germany and Germanic-ish countries, which comes from things like the Bode Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Bologna’s Museo Civico Medievale and Museo della Storia di Bologna, covering a timespan of something like 7th-15th centuries. The Germanic region in this time grew on me because it seems regarded even by comparison to the British Isles as deepest Dark Ages, yet the art and culture I’ve so far seen is glorious. And of course it all leads to Leibniz, so I need a better understanding of how he got to where he was (and it helps me to go back a thousand years to do that). The Deutsches Historisches Museum seemed then to be able to fill in some gaps. Gaps that turned out to be cavernous. Let’s just say I knew nothing and I discovered I know even less.

As to what I’d look at, or how to approach a museum, I decided to try an experiment. Since reading Nicole Griffith’s Hild, and reading about how she proposed to herself to discover who Hild might have been by researching 7th century Britain, and since reading the brilliant Medieval People of Colour blog, I thought about what might interest me in a museum, or rather, to consciously describe what I look for and to make that the subject of being a museum visitor.

For me then, it’s long been about finding women in history, teasing out the significance of their occasional appearances in museums; trying to understand life outside the roster of heroic males doing heroic things (usually killing large numbers of other males and everyone else too poor to get out of the way) who required heroic portraits or themselves—the Deutsches Historisches Museum is full of them. It’s also about people like Leibniz and those around him at that time; China and Central Asia; and since reading the Medieval People of Colour blog, looking for representations of people who do not look “typically European”.

On that last, a digression: I’m trying to find another term besides People of Colour to describe what I see. My understanding is that it’s primarily used in the United States to describe anyone not white, and I have some resistance to uncritically using a term that comes linked to a significant, specific history and country. Additionally, it seems to me to often denote visible difference, that is to say, a person of African descent in European art is often (but not always) visibly different from the usual pale skinned figures. There were a lot of Turkish and Arabic figures in this museum, whose difference was substantially down to clothing or facial features, and whose skin colour in no way denoted them as different. Contra all that, to say ‘non-European’ is to conflate skin colour, dress, ancestry and so on with being European, which patently is not the case. So I’m in a bind as to how to describe ethnic and cultural diversity in Europe. As Griffith and Medieval POC repeatedly say, there have always been people of colour in Europe.

A second digression: I do a minimum of editing the images: first dealing with any lens distortion and cropping, then some colour balancing. I’ve noticed when I do the balancing on paintings with people who have dark skin, the automatic Photoshop settings make them vanish into blackness. It seems there’s a heavy bias towards achieving colour balance for pale skin in the automatic settings at the distinct detriment to everyone else. Additionally, it’s really difficult in general to represent here what I saw in the museum, to compensate for the artificial light without generating a false image; to compensate for the RAW camera settings and image without adding in masses of additional colour and contrast. In short, what’s here is only very approximate.

We start with a map then, of Europe in the time of Charlemagne, around 100 years after the events of Hild, but the map holds true: there’s Whitby. There’s no Berlin though, in fact east of the Elbe there’s not much at all. Then there are two curved axe heads, my namesakes: Franziska. These were next to a couple of Seax, again the kind Hild would have used. Some armour, chain mail, shields, all the more real from having read that book of her. Then a tapestry, the Annunciation of Christ, and on the far right is definitely a person of colour, and of high rank, bearing a sword and crown. Some books and a clock, then another tapestry for which I don’t have the full name, but there are Indians on the backs of Giraffes, and two African musicians playing drums, about which the audio guide said, it was common for them to be employed or enslaved to work in the houses of royalty.

Iranian chain mail armour! I liked this just because armour, knights, and all that tends to be entirely associated with Europe and European history, yet here’s some very Persian-looking armour from the 15th century that looks well hard, especially that nasty scimitar.

A quartet: The Augsburger Monatsbilder. Four huge paintings each covering on season of the year, and it seemed also one direction of the compass. I just liked this, the life of the town in the late-1400s.

Then a painting for which I forgot to photograph the title, but intrigued me for the setting of knights jousting in front of a palatial residence, and the possibly Persian knights (just behind the giant fish, centre-left) and the African or Arabian possibly slaves (there’s an ankle chain visible on one) tending the horses along the bottom.

The wooden Crucifixion is a side-interest at the moment. I’ve just started reading about religious blood cults in mediæval Germany and the depiction of blood as in this crucifix, hanging like cords, reminded me of that. The paper theatres I just thought were beautiful works of art, and the lithograph of fireworks done in 1667 looks so uncannily like Art Nouveau, they make me smile every time I look at them.

Several more works with Turkish, Arabic, and African people in them. The hunting bags were particularly strange, being used to herd the hunted animal while waiting for the riders to arrive for the kill. There was a whole section covering the Turkish invasion of Europe and the siege of Vienna, as well as—at least until the siege—regular occurrences of Turkish, Arabic, Muslim, North African people. Not a huge amount, but enough amidst the wall-to-wall heroic white men that I was surprised by how frequently they appeared.

And then, Leibniz. I smiled a lot. A copy of his Oeuvres philosophques, printed in 1765, some 50 years after his death. Followed closely by Leonard Euler’s Theorie motuum Planetarium et cometarum, and a work I thought was Robert Hooke’s but turned out to be De Europische Insecten by Maria Sibylla Merian: sublime and colourful illustrations of plants and insects.

I skipped all the Kaiserreich and World War 1 period. There was a separate exhibition for the latter, but it didn’t and doesn’t hold much interest for me. There was one painting of a prisoner of war, Hamed Ben Nadi Abo El Kader by Hans Looschen which somehow connected for me—as a reappearance perhaps—with the medieval paintings. It seems necessary to remark on, that the diminishment and then absence of diversity in art, a narrowing down until it’s only portraits of white men, and until the culture from which this art comes itself is an embodiment of this parallels an emerging nationalism, xenophobia, and misogyny. The latter I think is pertinent because the diminishment and then absence of women corresponded pretty closely to the absence of people of colour.

What else? The audio guide isn’t free, but it’s pretty good. The permanent historical exhibition is the usual Berlin leviathan which left me ravaged after three hours. I didn’t see more than half of it with the care and attention it deserves; there’s enough to go on to cause a reading frenzy lasting years. The early period from around 800AD is the smallest and isn’t as thorough as I’d like (even though I was trapped in it for at least an hour). Which means I’m on a search for a museum for that period next.