Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Since returning to my country of birth last year after nearly 20 years away, I have become acutely aware not only of how I have changed, but also how the country has changed. So now, in addition to catching up with the sites and topics that I am responsible for managing and interpreting, I am also catching up with the country’s thinking about its identity and its heritage while I was gone – both key factors in any work with heritage.


One development that I’ve stumbled across quite quickly has been the formulation of an official Erinnerungskultur, or ‘memory culture’, and so I’ve recently read a book about that [1]. The term was coined during the 1990s, the decade I left Germany. It does not, as you might think, denote a particularly thriving culture based on memories. Rather, it focuses on the memory of the Holocaust as the (negative) foundation myth of modern Germany. In this it is slightly different from the cosmopolitan memory of the Holocaust which is shared between ‘the heirs of the victims, the perpetrators and bystanders’ as a ‘memory of a shared past’ [2]. In the current German Erinnerungskultur, the engagement with the responsibility for the Holocaust is a normative framework for the present and a key factor in defining Germany.


The book I’ve read also examines how Erinnerungskultur is now being challenged due to other developments, such as Germany changing its status to a country of immigration. Critiques ask for example how migrants are expected to treat this Erinnerungskultur: Are they to buy into it and adopt the unique responsibility as perpetrators? But is this not assimilatory, requiring them to leave behind their own identity and heritage? And yet, if we don’t ask them to opt into ‘German responsibility’, are we then not suggesting that there is something ethnic about being German, i.e. the very thing that Erinnerungskultur wants to challenge?


Other critiques focus on the change of generations and globalisation.  Each time a new generation has come into adulthood, it has changed how Germany has related to the Holocaust: must it not change now, too, as younger Germans increasingly identify as Europeans and global citizens? And what place has a special German Erinnerungskultur  in a globally connected world where cultural identities blur? Does Germany not need a more positive foundation now of who it is and who it wants to be, not the least after decades of commitment to, and evidence of a strong German democracy?


The book also cites critiques of the taboos that Erinnerungskultur has created, a type of Political Correctness that deems alternative narratives morally questionable, an approach that some political theorists have suggested may engender the very (narrow-minded) nationalistic mindsets that something like Erinnerungskultur actually tries to dissuade.


As an interpreter and heritage researcher, all of this is of course immensely intriguing. This latter critique is interesting too, because it points to Erinnerungskultur as an authorizing discourse that judges and prunes other memories and the expression of other heritages, much like Laurajane Smith’s Authorized Heritage Discourse [3]. I’m wondering if this may also have something to do with the large number of museums founded and run by civic groups as Heimatmuseen, which may most appropriately be translated as ‘(local) heritage museums’. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an occasional rift between museums and clubs referencing ‘Heimat’ on one hand, and the professionals in the sector on the other, with a suspicion and rejection of the term ‘Heimat’ that Erinnerungskultur may be able to explain.


There is such depth to German heritage, and such complex connections to German identity across groups and generations, which makes interpreting German heritage really interesting. My only concern at the moment is that Erinnerungskultur as an official discourse is (still) so strong as to make it impossible to critically explore and represent all the diverse dimensions of Germans’ heritage values. I’ve never believed in interpretation being a mouthpiece for any singular view, no matter how morally justifiable. I’d rather not be forced to make it so now.




[1] Assmann, A., 2013. Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur. Eine Intervention. 2nd ed. (2016). München: C.H.Beck. All of what I’m writing about Erinnerungskultur in this post is based on this book.

[2] Levy, D. and Sznaider, N., 2005. ‘Memory Unbound. The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory.’ European Journal of Social Theory 5(1), pp.87-106, p.103.

[3] Smith, L., 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

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The main research question for my PhD was whether or not interpretation delivered the public benefits of heritage as asserted in relevant legislation and policy. A key benefit is mutual understanding/social integration and cohesion, and sometimes also more directly, peace [1].


I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular benefit over recent months. In Germany, integration of refugees has become a primary societal task and shared endeavour. Heritage interpretation can play a role here, but are we philosophically equipped for this? I specifically wondered about this when on the Deutschlandfunk a few days ago a woman made the very important observation that integration classes teaching ‘German values’ must be very careful indeed to avoid both stereotyping the learner (e.g. the ‘misogynist Muslim man’) and overinflating the values themselves (e.g. as uniquely ‘German’ or already ‘achieved’). Both can actually lead to the opposite outcome – that ‘learners’ feel less respectful of these supposed ‘German’ values and more alienated than inspired to embrace them.


For me the delicate balance lies in the understanding of ‘education’. I do not subscribe to a view of interpretation as an ‘educational activity’ [2]. I think this creates a number of very questionable subject positions and assumptions, particularly of an ultimately ignorant visitor in need of knowledge supplied by the interpreter [3]. Interpretation understood as education also necessarily focuses on what must be ‘taught’ [4]: the message, the one thing that visitors will take away with them, the theme [5]. In the example above, that would be the ‘German values’, as evident in German cultural heritage, and immediately the pitfalls that the woman noted loom large.


Once we begin to acknowledge that these German values are not actually uniquely German, and that with some, German society still struggles and has plenty of heated arguments about; once we recognise that the Muslims, Christians, Syrians, Eritreans that come to Germany already share some of these values with us, or a version thereof, and that they will necessarily contribute their own views, it is no longer a matter of providing education about, or communicating, a value (the message), as if they’d never heard about it, nor had any personal claim to, or stake in it. What we’re dealing with here no longer fits the suggested process of selection of what to include, and what to leave out in order to most effectively communicate our message. This needs so much more.


For example, it needs to make room. What I’ve been really impressed by is the many writings in Germany, particularly in cultural policy, that are about active participation by new arrivals, and their contribution to shaping and changing German society and German future. However, interpretation as an educational activity is primarily based on a static view: of the past as something that has already been concluded, and of contemporary society as taking in that past as a (usually scientifically examined) given. Inspiration, renegotiation, questioning, critiquing has no room in this. But it is exactly these processes of reshaping heritage for the inspiration of and use in a shared future by a society that is re-constituting itself that social integration is built on. A concept of integration as a matter of the new arrivals properly understanding the ‘host’ society’s history and values, and uncritically adopting both, is old-fashioned and unworkable, besides presenting a distorted view of the coherence of that history and of those values. An interpretive practice that continues to view integration in this way, and provides interpretation accordingly, will have little, if any positive impact.


So I argue that we need something different, something that is not based on any idea of education, no matter how progressively framed, particularly when it comes to supporting integration. There is need for education, yes, and the teaching of the critical skills that enable people to become full citizens. But that is not the task of interpretation, at least not directly [6]. As visitors come to sites or to museums, or to their virtual counterparts, they do so for an existing reason [7]. It is partly an expression of their identity and their aspirations, and partly they look for further information – all of it, not simply our selection that supports and communicates to them our message. Interpretation must find ways of facilitating the processes of renegotiation, questioning and inspiration, with room for critiques and disagreements, and reinterpretations by a new society that is finding its way. It’ll be interesting to read the evaluations of the programmes run in Germany at the moment and learn from them.




[1] My case studies were two battlefields and these benefits were not reported by visitors, suggesting that they did not realise them. This is insofar of interest as at one site, Varusschlacht in Kalkriese, this European peace message was in the foreground. The short answer regarding peace/integration would therefore have to be that no, it doesn’t look like interpretation encouraged the realisation of these benefits at these two particular sites (and I spend considerable time in my thesis discussing why that might be).

[2] Tilden, F., 1957 (1977), 3rd edition. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 8.

[3] Yes, some writers do acknowledge ‘prior knowledge’, but this is still a far cry from accepting this knowledge in its own right as the distinguishing heritage value. Rather, the approach in interpretation that seeks to understand prior knowledge is usually used to be able to better influence visitors toward the knowledge/attitude/behaviour the interpreter wants them to have.

[4] Even if our literature takes great pains to distinguish this ‘teaching’ from that of the ‘formal classroom’ – a distinction that professional teachers would probably be puzzled by. It suggests their practice is still stuck in the 19th century. Modern teaching is not so much different from what interpretation proclaims as best practice. But I do not therefore think that education is interpretation, either.

[5] Possibly the first book to expand on thematic interpretation (the idea was already in Tilden’s book) was Ham, S., 1992. Environmental Interpretation. Golden: North American Press, p. 33ff. However, thematic interpretation is a core pillar of much contemporary interpretation literature.

[6] Arguably, as visitors will still gain new knowledge and experiences, there is always an element of education in interpretation, or even just in visiting a site that is not interpreted at all. The difference is in the philosophical foundation: I’m advocating that we don’t set out to educate, but to facilitate.

[7] A good starting point on this are the writings of Poria et al, starting with 2001, ‘Clarifying Heritage Tourism’. In: Annals of Tourism Research 28 (4), pp. 1047 – 1049.

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I am really intrigued by how German cultural institutions, including museums, appear to be contributing to the efforts of integrating refugees into German civic society.

This announcement of an upcoming exhibition about 14 projects in Berlin notes what seems to be a conscious shift away from narrowly focusing on refugees’ stories toward integrative projects that focus on topics shared by young people instead – whether or not they’re refugees. The objective is to support the Miteinander, the being, living, working together.

This project received an award in 2014, the Mixed Up Preis, for being a great example of using the arts to tackle contemporary socio-political issues. Pupils from a German school and from several refugee organisations came together to use three different art forms – theatre, film and applied arts – to look at ideas of home, identity, and the experience of adjusting both in a new place. You can see the documentary film about the project here (in German). Importantly, this wasn’t just about the refugees; the impact evidently went both ways, not only because the whole project started with the German school pupils visiting their nearby refugee home.

This objective of integrating refugees as quickly as possible is really strong in everything that I read these days from Germany. Die Bundesvereinigung Kulturelle Kinder- und Jugendbildung, short BKJ (roughly translated the Federal Association of Cultural Education for children and young people) issued a statement that noted that young refugees ‘have the same rights as all young people’ – therefore, they should be provided access to the same provision, and for the same strategic reason: ‘It makes possible and requires social and cultural participation’ [1].

Participation, Teilhabe, is a key word these days in German cultural policy, I’ve noticed. It’s very much used, at least on the policy level, to suggest an active contribution that also changes society. As the Berlin exhibition announcement states, the projects presented show how refugees can be supported in shaping the future together with those that have lived here longer [2]. Note that it’s not ‘their future’; it’s ‘future’. Shared. Together.

I’m really excited about this. Not just because it reflects a more global vision of diverse people living and shaping the future together, but because it shows cultural institutions actively responding to the challenges faced by the society they’re part of as they happen, without ‘targeting’ and framing ‘the other’. This is relevant. This truly does contribute. It makes a difference. It changes lives.

It also takes a stand. The BKJ is clear in their statement that they demand of their society the acknowledgement of the human right to asylum. They do not want Germany, and Europe, to isolate themselves. They want widespread acceptance of the fact that Germany is a country of immigration. They want to support an intercultural society through practical measures. They want to make a positive impact through their work as cultural institutions.

Maybe that’s easily said and done when broadly speaking, the society your institution is part of shares your values. Perhaps. But for now, I feel reinvigorated by what’s happening in Germany. Maybe museums as cultural organisations and players in society need not be irrelevant after all [3].


[1] The sentence in German reads: ‘Dies ermöglicht und erfordert gesellschaftliche und kulturelle Teilhabe.’

[2] In German: ‘…wie Kinder und Jugendliche mit Fluchthintergrund unterstützt werden können… gemeinsam mit den bereits länger hier Lebenden Zukunft zu gestalten.’

[3] As ever, my caveat with the project examples is that I don’t know what their actual, long-term impact is.  Hopefully the German colleagues will do proper evaluation and analysis, and we’ll find out. I’m just excited at this point that they do more than be silent, and that they don’t appear to still perpetuate the myth of target audiences being about inclusion.

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I spent the last weekend at the annual conference of the German Bundesverband fuer Museumspaedagogik.  It focussed on measuring the impact of interpretation, a subject that is even newer in Germany than it is in the UK.  There were a few things that I found interesting, and which I’d like to share here:


Cultural Education

There were repeated references to cultural education (Kulturelle Bildung) as one, if not the aim of museums.  It’s certainly a term that pops up regularly in German cultural strategies.  A German colleague explained that it is an aim that harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, and the emergence of the Bildungsbuergertum [1]. In this context, museums became the proverbial ‘temples of learning’ that brought educational opportunities to those who didn’t have the means of the upper classes. I think it is this underlying and ultimately uncritical acceptance of cultural education as the primary aim of museums that stands in the way of some developments that are also apparent in the German discourse.  For example, there was a lot of talk about general audience development, the need for more participation, and the need for more representation of under-represented groups.  However, I feel that as long as cultural education is assumed to be the aim, some of the issues affecting these desired developments cannot be resolved.  As long as interventions, be they exhibitions or outreach programmes, are ultimately concerned with educational gain, none of the opportunities that may otherwise open up can materialise.


Emotional Learning

I know that in the UK and the USA we’ve been establishing emotional objectives for a very long time.  However, in her closing speech, Prof Dr Birgit Mandel of the University of Hildesheim really highlighted the difference between cognitive (or factual) and emotional learning. Before the backdrop of the focus on ‘cultural education’ (above) this was just one step short of revolutionary, I felt.  In my own words, Prof Mandel described emotional learning as the shifting experience of one’s lifeworld, the gain of new insights and understandings, and the experience of expanding empathy and awareness.  I’m still uneasy about the terminology of ‘learning’, and yet emotional learning perhaps is more appropriate, serious and respectful, than what we in the English-speaking world often call “experiences”.  The latter doesn’t suggest the personal growth that takes place.  There doesn’t seem to be anything that conceptually distinguishes the “experience” of going to Disneyworld from the “experience” of visiting the battlefield where one’s great-grandfather died during the First World War.



One of the speakers, Prof Dr Karen van den Berg, spoke about the need to have (and teach at museums) reverence for objects [2]. She didn’t elaborate, so taken on face value I found this a really astounding assertion. Reverence (“Ehrfurcht”) turns visitors into observers.  It requires them to adopt a passive stance far back from the object.  It elevates the object above the visitor.  It implies that the object has an intrinsic value that the visitor needs to ‘learn’.  This is of course an attitude in line with the concept of cultural education.  However, I fear that such an approach, such a requirement of visitors, will continue to perpetuate a museum that doesn’t allow room for engagement, never mind participation.  As far as I can see, the only future of such a museum will be irrelevance and ultimately, closure.


Academic Grounding

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you will know that I advocate a greater engagement of interpreters with academia, especially on the level of the organisations that represent us.  So far, this only seems to happen in the US and to a limited degree, so I was pleasantly surprised to see all but two speakers at this conference (namely myself and a Dutch girl) be university professors. I think this gives a great signal, not only to practitioners but also to the outside world: that the practice of interpretation (or Museumspaedagogik, as it were) is firmly grounded in and backed by academic research. It was clear that Germany is still far from a close integration between academia and practice.  The speakers themselves also emphasized that there was a need for further academic research, and that the discipline, in academic terms, is still very new.  Nevertheless, it was great to have such an academic focus, mixed with practice presentations in the evening, and that’s something I’d like to see in the UK also [3].



[1] The Bildungsbuergertum was the upper middle class that strove to increase their understanding of the world through what was basically lifelong learning in classical subjects (science, literature, humanities).

[2] She called it “Ehrfurcht vor den geschaffenen Dingen”.

[3] I do have to report one slightly negative thing though: and that is the lack of adjustment to the audience that most speakers displayed.  The majority of them read off a piece of paper, as if they were in a lecture hall.  There was no engagement, no attempt at making the content accessible and – dare I say it – fun.  I enjoyed it, and gained much from it, but I did wonder whether someone who doesn’t happen to currently be doing their own PhD on this very subject could actually follow what they were saying.  As one participant poignantly said, here we are at a conference on interpretation, where we know we shouldn’t be talking at people, and yet that’s precisely what the speakers did, for up to 1.5 hours (!) at a time.  Reporting on academic research doesn’t have to be dry or practically incomprehensible for the layperson.

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When I recently visited Germany on my first research study visit, my interviewees used two terms to describe interpretive foci, which I found quite intriguing: ‘Ereignisgeschichte’ (event history) and ‘Rezeptionsgeschichte’ (reception history).

We don’t generally use these terms in English and in our writings.  However, I wonder if they can go some way in helping us conceptualize the (interpretive) issue around history vs heritage [1].

In German usage, the Ereignisgeschichte (event history) tells the story of what happened, when, where, and of the actors involved [2].  It doesn’t go into how it may have influenced the future and our present, nor how we relate to the event today.  In many ways, it seems to me that as such Ereignisgeschichte equates (much more elegantly expressed) to what in English we mean by ‘history’.

Rezeptionsgeschichte (reception history), on the other hand, focuses on how people have responded to the event since: how they wrote about it in poetry, for example, or how they made it part of their identity make-up over time. Rezeptionsgeschichte thus is a rather academic, life-less description of what in practice more often than not involves very personal and passionate emotions.  For this reason I wouldn’t equate it with what we mean by ‘heritage’ in English, which expresses (in my mind) just these emotions felt by people.  However, as an approach to interpreting heritage, Rezeptionsgeschichte strikes me as a rather perfect method.

Let me elaborate.  When I did research at the Battle of the Boyne, I was told that the interpretive focus was on history because the debate surrounding the battle and its aftermath still caused so much emotion and unrest in modern Ireland.  While I appreciate the argument, I wonder whether the site’s interpretation consequently has any effect at all [3].

Using a reception history approach, however, might have allowed to present all subsequent responses to the battle without being emotional or appearing to take sides.  Just as in presenting historical facts [see note 2], a reception history approach allows to be ‘objective’, while still acknowledging people’s stake in the event.

It seems to me that especially at sites with contested or controversial heritage the reception history approach to interpretation may just be the solution.  Personally, wherever possible I still prefer a more immediate interpretation that reflects and resonates with people’s heritage beliefs and emotions.  However, where such ‘hot’ interpretation, as Uzzel and Ballantyne [4] have called it, is not possible, the reception history approach is far more appropriate than the history approach.  I cannot help but feel that a history approach to interpretation is almost always a cop out.

On a final note, I also want to share another term they use in German: Geschichtspolitik. Now this is a term I really cannot adequately translate into English – we have nothing like it.  What it actually means is the political use of history, for example through the selective recall of facts, or the reframing of events to suit modern needs.  Interestingly, in the English-language discourse this is usually a concept associated with heritage, and in fact, it is this proposed political (and consequently presumably flighty) dimension of heritage that is used as an argument in favour of the history approach to interpretation.  I am not entirely sure yet how we might be able to use this concept – Geschichtspolitik – to improve our interpretive practice. However, I find it most helpful to separate the political use of history out from both history and heritage.  Maybe it can sit in a reception history approach to interpretation, or maybe it is a separate aspect altogether, as the German discourse seems to suggest.  Either way, it’s good to think about these concepts, and recognise that our understanding of and responses to these concepts as interpreters have far-reaching consequences for our visitors.  They’re not something we can ignore.


[1] Two years ago, I wrote this article on the matter.  Back then, I wrongly came to the conclusion that the debate of ‘history vs heritage’ had come to an end two decades before.  This is not so.  While today heritage is less often opposed to ‘history’ as a term and concept these days, the underlying questions are the same.  What is more, the concept of heritage has seen a much more vigorous critical examination than what existed in the 1980s and 90s.

[2] As far as that is possible.  But I won’t get into a discussion now of how objective or authoritative any history can ever be.

[3] I was not given permission to conduct visitor research there as the management felt this would stir up emotions when the site was intended to allow for peaceful and private contemplation.  Again, I appreciate the motivation here, and yet the consequence of this decision is that they will not know the impact of their interpretation, nor will we be able to learn from it. For all we know, the heritage communities in question may feel the site is lifeless due to the omission in the interpretation of their heritage represented in the site, while visitors, well aware of the tensions in Ireland, may feel they came to what they thought was an important site in understanding this history, and yet they walk away as puzzled and uninformed as they came.

[4] Uzzel, D. and Ballantyne, R., 2008. ‘Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation in a postmodern world.’ In: In: Fairclough, G. et al (eds), 2008.  The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 502 – 513

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