Brigitte Vogel-Janotta

Q&A: Deutsches Historisches Museum

Nicola Sullivan, 05.07.2016
The Deutsches Historisches Museum shares its thinking behind a project that trains refugees as museum guides 
The project Multaqa: Museum as a Meeting Point trains Syrian and Iraqi refugees as museum guides so they can provide tours at German museums for fellow refugees in their native language.

Multaqa (Arabic for “meeting point”) is a collaboration between the Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Vorderasiatisches Museum, the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst and the Deutsches Historisches Museum and aims to facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences.

Deutsches Historisches Museum’s head of education Brigitte Vogel-Janotta and press office Boris Nitzsche told Museums Journal about how the project helps participants to establish connections between the past and the present.

How successful has the Multaqa: Museum as a Meeting Point project been and how has it developed?

Nitzsche: In the Deutsches Historisches Museum the project is going well. We have two tours every week and they have all more or less booked out. In the other museums it has been a little bit harder, especially if there is a lot of abstract art in the collections. 

We have a new funding from the Federal State Commissioner for Culture and Media and with that money we are developing a new workshop and a new project, which will bring together German and Syrian guides.  

How does the project help refugees foster links between Germany’s cultural heritage and their own?

Vogel-Janotta: We haven’t evaluated the guided tours and I don’t understand Arabic but when I accompany the tours there seems to be lots of good discussion. For example, people are interested in finding out about the Siege of Vienna.  

Nitzsche: We have to be aware that that this project is a drop in the ocean but there are several ways in which it has a positive impact. One of the big problems affecting the refugee communities is boredom. Many are forced to stay in the camps, they have nothing to do and often they are not allowed to work.

In order for the refugees to integrate into society they need to know that society and the history is very important, especially in Germany with its problematic past. We can help them to understand more about where they are and some of the tour's content could give them hope.  

We show them what Germany was like after the second world war, they see the ruins and the pictures of the destroyed cities and they see how it is now. They see how a divided country was able to unify. They relate these events to their own fate and destiny and it can give them hope. They can relate to the guide because he/she shares their history and has empathy for their situation.

What objects in the Deutsches Historisches Museum have captured people’s attention?  

Vogel-Janotta: The portrait of Martin Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora. Religion and the reformation was an important part of history. Pieces of the Berlin wall are also of interest – unification is a really important message. Pictures of world-war-two destroyed cities look like places in Iraq or Aleppo, but are in fact Danzig, Berlin or Nuremberg.  Then there is also a picture of the German engineer Wilhelm von Pressel [who built the Baghdad Railway].

Nitzsche: People tend to forget that Europe was torn for 30 years in devastating religious war and Germany was more or less destroyed by that. It is important to show that religious war is not unknown to the western world. With the reformation came religious openness and liberalism. It also changed the position of women. That is what we show with Katharina von Bora – a nun who married a monk [Martin Luther], which was completely illegal at the time. But all of that changed of course and she became a priestess, which completely changed the position of women in religion.

How successful are museums in Germany at using the country's history as a platform to discuss contemporary issues like the migrant crisis?

Nitzsche: Germany has such a problematic history and such a difficult history and it is such a burden and a responsibility. We really absolutely can’t discuss any event without having in mind our history. Germany wouldn’t be the society or the country it is today if it wasn’t open to its own history and took responsibility for it.

Since the late seventies there has been very open discussion of the dark chapters of the Germany’s past. But we have not covered it all yet. We are currently looking at German colonialism, which is almost a forgotten chapter in German history. It is important to show history that is related to now and has affected contemporary events.

What role do European museums have to play in addressing people’s fears around immigration and how important is this in the context of Brexit?

Vogel-Janotta: I think we have to invite the far right into the museums. We have academics, students and refugees. Everyone has one opinion. We have many non-visitors and we need to reach them. We need to show them the side of national socialism.

Nitzsche: Of course museums can’t change the world – that would be overdoing it – but our chief remit as a national museum is of course to reach everyone, not just the people that are already interested. By showing what happened in history and the results and causes of events people can look at what is happening now in a more distant and objective way. We need to make room for reflection and rational thinking.  

We currently have an exhibition called Multicultural Germany, a Country of Immigration. This is important because it shows that Germany has always been a country of immigration, even though this fact has been denied in the past.

Immigration is nothing new. Looking back to the 1950s when lots of migrants came to Germany people were having the same discussions as they are now. Germany is still alive and still OK so it can’t have been a disaster. The aim is to give a bit of neutrality and a bit of distance to sometimes overheated and irrational discussions.

Brigitte Vogel-Janotta, the head of education at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, will be speaking at the Communicating the Museum (CTM) - an international conference for communications professionals working in the arts and museums. 

The topic for this year's edition of CTM is ‘dialogue’ and will be discussed by more than 300 museum professionals at the conference taking place at Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.