Germany and Britain- pride and shame at the British Museum


As you enter, a giant screen shows the human faces of the fall of the Berlin Wall- double-denim clad East Germans with big hair are pushing past bewildered border guards with a look of sheer incredulity and joy on their faces. Free at last, to a freedom at once both joyous and fraught with practical difficulties in the years to come.

'Germany: memories of a nation' is a highly popular special exhibition running at the British Museum until January 25th. 600 years of history is told via artefacts that trace the history of the lands now known as Germany. Most notable is the fact that the lands occupied by German-speaking people were originally much bigger than the Germany of today, despite re-unification. At different times 'Germany' covered areas that stretched from Poland to just north of Italy. Although Germany remains a colossus of Eorope, it is in fact vastly reduced in its land area, if not its political influence.

Fantastic artefacts vie for the visitors' attention, just as they tried to attract the attention and patronage of various royal and aristocratic dynasties throughout the ages. Great competition amongst artists and craftsmen ensured marvellous works fought to attract wealth and influence. Golden tankards from the Hansa cities, great artworks of Duerer, Holbein and Richter, even a real Volkswagen Beetle- it's a feast for the visitor and the pride of German craftsmen at their best. The darker side of German ingenuity is also displayed- by the actual gate from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The exhibition aims to show the complexity of German history to an international audience still obsessed with Nazis and Nueremberg. So how arrogant, limiting and short-sighted  of the museum management that the entire exhibition is labelled only in English. Not one word of German, or any other language is to be seen. Surely, if seeking to educate, inform and entertain, the descriptions could have been in German as well as English? Visitors included many from German-speaking lands, plus those with an interest in things German, so it's not unreasonable to assume a good many might wish to read a few words of German.

 But,no. In true British style, if you want to read it, you'd better know English. It's the world language, so why bother with anything else? Best keep it monolingual, in case we might learn something foreign. In the disparate former regions of the Germans, it was the language that identified the inhabitants as 'German' in the first place- so why not expose us to a few words, whether we understand them or not?


double-denim      wearing jeans and a denim jacket- a style poplar in the 1970s

incredulity         disbelief

fraught with difficulties

to vie for attention       to fight for attention

artefacts    objects made by craftsmen

tankard         a beer mug

ingenuity          inventiveness



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