Objects don’t equal objectivity, or: The pitfalls of object-driven interpretation

Last week I was back in Germany finishing up the visitor interviews at Museum und Park Kalkriese for my doctorate research.  One interview in particular struck a note with me.  A visitor was very upset about what they felt was a major lack of balanced representation.  They felt that there was little to nothing about the German side, even though the museum owed its existence to a battle in which an outnumbered force of German tribes annihilated (there’s really no other word for it) three Roman legions in 9 AD.

The visitor said that they expected objectivity in a museum. For them, this objectivity meant giving due consideration to historical fact without overlaying a modern bias.  The bias in this case, as they explained, was Germany’s difficult relationship to anything in German history that might inspire nationalistic sentiments – i.e. a tribal leader of 2000 years ago defeating the expanding Roman Empire.

My interviews with various staff suggest that this bias has indeed been present when the interpretation was put together.  However, when I specifically asked about why there is this prominent focus on the Roman side, the answer was mostly: there aren’t many artefacts that have been found from the Germans.  Moreover, the sentiment was that by focussing strictly on what has been proven archaeologically, i.e. via artefacts and physical traces, objectivity would be achieved.

I think the visitor I spoke to articulated a very good point [1].  When, numerically speaking, about 80% of an exhibition relates to one side of a story, there cannot be objectivity.  Objects and archaeological evidence do not ensure objectivity.  These are merely two sources of information, and if they don’t illustrate both sides of a story, then other sources need to be consulted and represented [2].

If this means drawing on different theories that may still be discussed, then so be it.  What interpretation needs is the courage to own up to the dictionary core of the meaning of the word: there are many possible interpretations of a story, or historical fact.  As this visitors’ reaction makes clear, we cannot hide behind archaeology and objects.  They cannot on their own deliver objectivity [3]. We have to acknowledge that there is more than one point of view. And we have to trust our visitors to be just as smart as we are.

This is an important point: what strikes me about my interviews with staff is this fear that the site will be hijacked by fascists, or at the very least misconstrued by visitors as a site of nationalist pride [4].  And in order to prevent this, any suggestion that there could have been anything like a ‘German achievement’, as the visitor called it, is carefully avoided.

In reality, visitors are also part of this German discourse.  They’re very capable of placing the historic fact of the German defeat of the Roman army 2000 years ago into the context of more recent German history.  The visitor that spoke to me was well-educated, eloquent, and fully aware both of the challenges of German history and the fact that there weren’t many German artefacts from the battle.  What they wanted was for the museum to provide a space free of the manipulation ever present in the outside world (they said) and show some (real) objectivity.  They were going to do their own thinking about the sources provided, thank you very much.

[1] It is really striking just how reserved responses in Germany are compared to those that I’m getting in England at the Battle of Hastings.  A few responses have made me wonder whether the issue does actually lie with this bias identified at this particular museum.  I have therefore decided to do a trial study at the mirror site to Kalkriese, the Hermann’s Monument.  It’ll be interesting to see if there are differences in visitors’ responses at these two sites.

[2] Ironically, where the German tribes are discussed, this is generally done via reference to Roman writers.  And yet, the interpretation then goes on to call into question the reliability of these sources, and even contradicts them – although I’m not clear what the basis for the contradiction is.

[3] Just on a quick side note, the focus on objects in our social history museum has led to key events of local history being neglected. I’m feeling a bit smug when I write here that for this reason, I wrote into our Interpretive Vision as a principle that our interpretation at the new museum would not be object driven. It did cause a mini-mutiny by our curators, but now they’re on board.

[4] In England, at the Battle of Hastings, neither visitors nor staff give this another thought.  Of course this is where The Nation Was BornOf course it’s part of their British identity, and they’re proud of it.  I hasten to add that with none of the British visitors did I get a sense of irrational nationalism.

4 thoughts on “Objects don’t equal objectivity, or: The pitfalls of object-driven interpretation

  1. As ever, I found this blog thought-provoking. But isn’t the implication of what you say that there will be lots of words or computers telling you things (or encouraging you to think about things), instead of objects to look at? If so, think that’s a problem as museums aren’t the best places to present lots of information and weave narratives. Books, films, theatre, tv, radio can all do that far better than museums. What museums are good or is giving a visual experience and an experience you can move through, with just a few words and screens to help you on your way. Surely, we don’t want ‘books on the wall’ any more.

    1. Hi Maurice,

      Thanks for your comment. I would be really depressed if the only solutions that museums professionals and interpreters came up with were lots of words or – in my opinion worse – computers. I should hope that they manage to come up with engaging, immersive, physical ‘illustrations’ that involve visitors, and there are plenty of these around already. Ironically, the museum in Kalkriese also has two good examples of these, and when I asked visitors what they liked the most about how the story was presented, these are what they mentioned (rather than the objects even): one exhibit is a model of the three Roman legions as it winds its way along through the entire length of the exhibition space. This, visitors said, really helped them understand a) the size of the army, b) the organized nature of the march of the army, and c)the effort behind moving this large force through difficult territory. This is achieved without a single word (there were labels, but visitors didn’t seem to read them), no computer, no interactive, and no authentic object. The other example is of an interactive that releases hundreds of marbles along an abstracted model of the landscape where the battle took place, and as the marbles run along some fall through holes in the floor, illustrating the losses of the Roman army along their march. Again, visitors said this helped them understand a) the landscape, and b) the magnitude of the Roman losses.

      I think we wrongly believe that objects or something ‘authentic’/visual are automatically what interests visitors most and what makes them connect with a story. While visitors I interviewed (149 of them) did enjoy the objects, I find it striking that almost every concrete example given of what presentation they liked and what helped them connect with and understand the story did NOT include an artefact, but very consistently referred to the two examples at the top alongside a few others.

      On a final note, I think there can be very interesting ‘books on the wall’ as long as they are well written books, as I’ve written here: https://nicoledeufel.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/a-good-book-on-the-wall/.

      Thanks! I love the challenge to further think about what visitors’ responses, and my own views, mean.


  2. Hi Nicole, This is a very interesting post. If you want to persue further the presentation of iconic battles on the evidence of archaeology, perhaps you might consider visiting Alésia Muséo Parc in Burgundy, dedicated to the battle of Caesar against Vercingétorix.

    1. Hi Willem,

      Thanks for the pointer! I have heard quite a bit about the presentation of Vercingétorix, which I think might be useful to compare with Germany’s (museums) relationship to Arminius. What is more, I’m beginning to become more and more engrossed with battlefield and conflict interpretation, which I think is one of the most interesting fields of interpretation!

      Thanks again,

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