How do museums and cultural institutions approach the truth in these socially polarised times? The was the question 17 young museum and culture specialists from Germany, Switzerland, Georgia, Togo, Lebanon and Italy sought to answer at the 7th Henry Arnhold Dresden Summer School. From 23 September to 2 October 2019, they discussed the topic with experts at TU Dresden, the Sächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek (Saxon State and University Library, SLUB) Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden’s State Art Collections), the Militärhistorisches Museum (Museum of Military History) and the and Deutsches Hygiene-Museum (German Hygiene Museum).
On the opening evening in the Fürstengalerie (Gallery of Princes) in Dresden’s Residential Palace, Director of the Summer School Prof. Dr Hans Vorländer discussed claims to truth and the role of museums in polarised discourse with philosopher Prof. Dr Philipp Hübl, Director of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Dr Ulrike Lorenz, and Head of Kunsthaus Dresden, Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz. Ms Lorenz presented her concept for the Kunsthalle Mannheim art gallery of museums as free and public spaces that actively engage with society. This raised questions of legitimation, which were subsequently discussed. Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz mentioned examples of targeted interventions that have been implemented in Dresden’s urban landscape. What makes a museum a museum? On the first workshop day, exhibition expert Dr Joachim Baur and the participants considered museum definitions from around the world and the official definitions of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) through the years.
Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, Director of Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen (Saxon State Ethnographical Collections) spoke about the challenges and responsibility of ethnological museums in their approach to the origins of items in their collections. She illustrated this vividly using the exhibition of cult objects and objects believed to have powers, and the return of human remains taken in colonial situations. The well-attended public evening lecture by Prof. Dr Benédicté Savoy in the Albertinum museum also focused on approaches to museums’ colonial pasts. In a lecture entitled ‘Back to the future. On restitution of African cultural assets’, the French restitution expert presented facts on colonial artefacts in the collections of German museums and explained why we should forget and suppress the restitution debate that has already been argued 40 years ago: Most collections from Africa and Oceania came to museums during their 34 years as German colonies – taken under questionable conditions, for example by stealing jewellery from the bodies of those killed. Museums publicised the origin of the objects in catalogues until the 1970s. Later, when everyone around the world was talking about restitution, museums in Germany stopped making their catalogues publicly available, in case the corresponding countries called for the objects to be returned. The term restitution/return was also to be replaced by the softer term ‘transfer’, to avoid emotionality and prevent legal action, as revealed by an internal guideline Savoy found during her archive research. “Even museums don’t always tell the truth,” reported the researcher - for example, even when responding to political inquiries on whether cultural assets were acquired legally, museums didn’t tell the whole truth about the colonial circumstances under which they were sourced.
In the Albertinum museum, Director Hilke Wagner and restorer Astrid Nielsen explained how art became a platform in a polarised urban society in what is known as the 2017 Dresdner Bilderstreit (iconoclastic controversy). How did this controversy come to be, and what did the museum do? The participants not only learned about GDR art, but were also given an insight into the depots and a frank discussion with the Director on the challenges of her work in a polarised society.
In Deutsches Hygiene-Museum (German Hygiene Museum), the participants toured the permanent exhibition before actively contributing their ideas for a revamped sexuality exhibition based on selected items, and discussing the many potential truths with the exhibition makers. On board the Dresden concept-Tram, they debated digital truths with the participants of the Voice Interaction and Voice Assistants Summer School.
In Chemnitz, the participants experienced different concepts of committed cultural associations in the highly polarised city: from the sociocultural work of Spinnerei e.V. to the experimental dialogue hub of Chemnitz Open Space – initiated by the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz museum association in response to the 2018 riots – to Klub Lokomov and the exhibition spaces of the Verein Solitaer association in the flashpoint neighbourhood of Sonnenberg.
The Bürgerbühne theatre, presented by Christiane Lehmann at Kleines Haus of state theatre company Staatsschauspiel Dresden, is all about interactions between truth and fiction. With performances that are not limited to biographical theatre, the Bürgerbühne subtly incorporates dialogue on topics that move the city and its people. After participants attended the play ‘Früher war alles...’, (Everything used to be...), featuring citizens from Freital, several performers answered their questions on the development, rehearsals and impact in an intimate environment.
The project day at the Militärhistorisches Museum (Museum of Military History) focused on the power of interpretation: Curator Dr Magnus Pahl guided participants through the temporary exhibition ‘Der Führer Adolf Hitler ist tot’ (Führer Adolf Hitler is dead) on the Stauffenberg assassination of 20 July 1944. The posters and an original film backdrop from the US film ‘Operation Valkyrie’ inspired discussion on curatorial standards and the interpretation of historic events - which continued animatedly after Prof. Dr Winfried Heinemann’s presentation on the controversial transformation and appropriation of this date in zeitgeist and politics.
In his workshop, ‘Facts and Fake Science’, NDR journalist Peter Hornung and the participants analysed conference invitations by predatory publishers, as well as potential characteristics and search engine tips to unmask these fraudulent publishers at the SLUB library. Hornung produced a documentary on the subject, and was able to report from his research.
To conclude the Summer School, the participants posed final questions to the directors of the institutions involved in the Summer School on handling truth and claims to truth at the traditional ‘Directors’ Café’ event.