At the Museum of Things

Jo Glanville

In Berlin last month I went to the Museum der Dinge in Kreuzberg. The museum of things tells the history of the Werkbund, an early 20th-century movement to bring aesthetic values to mass production. The small space is filled with wooden cabinets displaying every household object imaginable: crockery, furniture, glasses, knick-knacks. It’s an absorbing exhibition that gives you a sense of acquisitive discovery, like rooting around in someone else’s cupboards.

Halfway through there’s a cabinet partially obscured with text, asking the visitor: ‘How should the swastika symbol be handled within the exhibitions of a museum? Should it be displayed? Or not?’ The cabinet also carries the text of the German criminal code that forbids the distribution of Nazi propaganda, punishable by three years’ imprisonment or a fine.

It’s a surprise to come across Nazi items among familiar, domestic objects. But the bigger shock is the museum’s decision to hide them from view – as an educational establishment it’s exempt from the propaganda law. You can see the forbidden objects if you peer in from an angle: there’s a cigarette lighter emblazoned with a swastika and a saucepan lid with swastikas round the edge. Crockery commemorating the 1938 Berlin Olympics in the same cabinet has not been covered up; nor has a cushion embroidered with an image of Hitler, swastika on his arm. The museum is clearly making a statement, and inviting a debate, rather than imposing censorship.

The exhibit was covered up more than two years ago. The museum was concerned at the number of photographs of the Nazi display, including selfies, being posted online. Markus Hengelhaupt, a museum spokesperson, told me by email:

We wanted to avoid the impression that we were OK with the fact that these pictures really dominated the photos uploaded at the Google page of our institution, so that it might seem that we are a museum of Nazi kitsch alone that does not care about the context of these objects.

The museum tells the history of the Werkbund movement on panels in the exhibition but the artefacts are displayed without detailed captions, allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions. ‘We realised that this kind of presentation is not adequate since these particular objects need to be put in the context of their time, for obvious reasons,’ Hengelhaupt said. ‘That’s why we decided to cover them partially and let visitors, like yourself, reflect on the role of these historical artefacts for our time and whether or not they should be openly displayed.’ The museum doesn’t intend to obscure the display permanently, but is looking for a better solution to the moral dilemma.

One problem with even partial censorship is that it immediately heightens viewers’ interest and gives the objects an illicit appeal. The Nazi display is a tiny part of a fascinating exhibition, but it’s the part that now predominates in my memory of the museum.

At the end of June, the Department for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) published its annual report on antisemitism in Germany for 2021. Despite the propaganda law and the appointment of an antisemitism commissioner in 2018, antisemitic incidents have increased by 40 per cent, including six cases of extreme violence, 63 attacks and 2182 instances of abusive behaviour. Germany isn’t alone. France has reported a 75 per cent increase in antisemitic incidents. In the US, the Anti-Defamation League reported an increase of 34 per cent. In the UK, the Community Security Trust reported a record high.

Almost a third of all antisemitic incidents in Germany last year were related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Jews have been the targets of conspiracy theories for centuries, from medieval Europe to 9/11. The historian David Nirenberg, in his book Anti-Judaism, has traced the perception of Jews and Judaism as a threat to society back to the ancient world. It’s an idea deeply rooted in Christianity and later Western political thought. Blaming Jews has been a way of making sense of the world for centuries. ‘Today, or any moment where the political becomes both an explicit object of anxiety and critique, either because it’s felt to be too powerful or it’s felt to be trembling on its foundations, these concepts about Judaism become really useful again,’ he told me.

When Documenta 15 opened in Kassel last month there was an outcry over a banner on display in the exhibition. People’s Justice, by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, featured antisemitic imagery including an orthodox Jew with fangs and SS insignia on his hat. Taring Padi explained that the banner, created in 2002, was a response to Suharto’s dictatorship, including the support that Western governments gave the regime:

The imagery that we use is never intended as hatred directed at a particular ethnic or religious group, but as a critique of militarism and state violence. We depicted the involvement of the government of the state of Israel in the wrong way – and we apologise. Antisemitism does not have a place in our hearts and minds.

At the weekend, the director of Documenta was forced to resign over the row.

I’m not sure how the Museum der Dinge will solve its problem. Perhaps the only answer is to put the Nazi objects in context. We still, clearly, need to learn from the most extreme manifestation of antisemitism in history. A saucepan lid decorated with swastikas is kitsch at its most noxious – the pernicious domestication of fascism.