Difficult Person Museums
How to remember - and to forget/leave out at museums?
Museums are often seen as institutions of remembrance. But the second side of the coin is that to remember also means to forget, to leave out something. I am studying the process of forgetting/leaving out facts and discussions in museums, especially in person museums. Person museums are a constantly growing category of museums, and therefore very interesting to study. I have chosen persons that are popular for some reason, but also have a problematic history. So my main question is: What to do if the person is problematic in any way, if he or she has a skeleton in the closet?
My first analytical tool is very simple. Those two main perspectives are of course very simplified, but they function as a start when analyzing person museums:
Connected to those perspectives are the more concrete ways for museums to remember and forget, as I can see from my museum studies. See below!
I have until today visited and interviewed people at eight person museums: Zarah Leander museum in Sweden, Richard Strauss Institute/museum in Germany, Carl Milles museum in Sweden, Verner von Heidenstam museum in Sweden, Carl Off museum in Germany, Richard Wagner museum/Villa Wahnfried in Germany, Gustav Mannerheim museum in Finland, Verner Egk Institute/museum min Germany. More museums will be included in the study, f e Eva Duarte museum in Buenos Aires, Kaj Munk museum in Denmark, Knut Hamsun museum in Norway, Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson and George Buchanan museums in USA. In this paper I will give just three examples, and those are very shortened.
Zarah Leander Museum in Sweden
Zarah Leander singing for wounded Vermacht soldiers in the film “Die grosse Liebe”.
Near the singer´s home in Sweden is a museum started 1999. She was during the thirties very popular as a singer in Sweden. But 1937 she wrote a contract with UFA, the leading film company in Nazi German, direct under Joseph Goebbels. She became one of the most known, and best payed, popular artist in The Third Reich.
This picture is from her perhaps most popular film in The Third Reich: “Die Grosse Liebe” from 1942. Here she is with wounded German soldiers, singing her extremely popular tune“Es wird einmal ein wunder geshehen”. This was comforting to hear as the war was going really bad - a wonder could happen, by many Germans interpreted as a new wonderful weapon, arranged by Hitler. Zarah Leander became a part of the Nazi propaganda, and this was very discussed in Sweden during this time. When she came back to Sweden 1943 she became a “persona non grata”.
Poster at the museum, presenting “Die grosse Liebe” as just a successful film.
How does the museum handle with those facts? Most of the museum is about her role as a successful artist, with photos, items from films, posters, private things etc. Her role in the Third Reich is commented in the museum film room, and then only with her own words from her diary. The museum employees talked about her years in Germany as something rather unproblematic: “she was only an artist, and was a political idiot. It is the Swedish press that have threatened her so badly, the discussion about her was only unfair”. The film “Die grosse Liebe” is presented just as a successful film, and the song “Es wird einmal…” only as a very good song.
The main perspective for the Zarah Leander museum is clearly the “Subjective”/From within:
Richard Strauss Institute/Museum
Richard Strauss with his benefactor Baldur von Schirach 1943.
The great composer Richard Strauss was a National Ikon even for the Nazis, and they wanted to use him. Goebbels appointed him 1933 as the chairman for the new Reichsmusikkammer, but he was dismissed as early as 1935 because of quarrels with Goebbels about his Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, and about Strauss dislike of more popular music. But Strauss still had contact with nazi leaders, as Baldur von Schirach (se the photo) and Josef Franck. He also got the commission to compose and conduct the official hymn for the Olympic games in Berlin 1936. He also played a criticized role when he replaced the pursued Jewish conductor Bruno Walter at a concert.
How does the Institute/museum handle with those facts? Earlier the museum only had places for occasional exhibitions, but the public wanted a more biographical exhibition about Strauss, so just a month before I visited the museum (summer 2016) they had opened a permanent exhibition about Strauss. And in this one Strauss time during the Nazi era had a central role. Here the difference to the Zarah Leander museum is obvious. The text is very much about his role as chairman for the Reichsmusikkammer, and his quarrels with Goebbels witch puts Strauss in a good light for the afterworld. There are also texts about his Jewish family, which caused him much trouble, texts that also puts him in a good light. At the same time the museum don´t argue about his god contacts with Nazi leaders, his antiparlamentarism and the Bruno Walter affair.
In my opinion the museum is very much in between of the “Subjective”/From within and “Objective”/From outside perspective of the person.
- The museum don´t only uses Strauss own words and model of explanations. It has a more outside perspective than f e Zarah Leander museum.
- The museum stresses much of the good side of Strauss in the conflicts, he´s good will. It is not taking up the more problematic questions, problematic in our eyes.
- A wider perspective exists, but it is much about the Nazi´s around Richard Strauss´ person. Not the role he and the use of his music played in general for the regime, for example.
Sign at the museum with a “positive” text, in our eyes, from Strauss in a letter to Stefan Zweig, which led to Strauss dismissal as Chairman for the Reichsmusikkammer.
Wagner Museum/Villa Wahnfried
This museum is an example of a museum where the “Objective”/outside perspective on the person is much more evident. The great opera composer Richard Wagner became a living Germany legend when he died 1883. A problematic part of his history was his strong, and influential, antisemitism. And his daughter-in-law Winifred, who become director of the Bayreuth opera, was very closely connected to Hitler, who lowed Wagner. How to handle Wagners strong antisemitism and his family´s close connections to Hitler. And how to describe Bayreuth opera as a shrine for the Nazi regime and culture politics?
Wagner museums dares to tell the story about Winifred Wagners devotion to Hitler.
The museum is in two parts – a new built museum about The composer Richard Wagner, and his original Villa Wahnfried, that is more about his descendants. Before the new museum was built and inaugurated 2016 either Wagner´s antisemitism or his daughter-in- laws close connection to Hitler and the Nazism was almost not mentioned. Instead the museum of yesterday showed more “positive” sides of Wagner, for example his participation in the Dresden revolt 1848, today more representative than being a leading anti-Semite.
Today you can see Wagners manuscript to the book “Das Judenthum in der Musik”, and a text about the books influence on the society. You can in Villa Wahnfried also see several examples of the Wagnerian influence on Hitler and his esthetic.
Wagner museum comparison between the Wagnerian heroes and the symbolic picture of Hitler.
The Wagner museum has a clear “Objective”/From outside perspective on its subjects:
Why the Zarah Leander museum, Richards Strauss Institute/museum and Wagner museum/Villa Vahnfried (and other person museums) are different in their perspectives is a very interesting question. It depends on the age since the person died (Wagner f e), how big the museum is, who have started the museum, who runs it, the general view of the person in the society etc, etc. This is something to investigate more!
Here some general observations I have done after studying at least 15 person museums about the different, more concrete ways of forgetting/leaving out difficult questions - a little list of museum ways to remember and to forget/leaving out:
Full account. The museum in exhibitions and other material tells about the difficult things. But of course – this is always a problem. You can never tell everything, so you must choose what to wright and exhibit, even if you want to be as honest as possible. To remember is always to leave something out.
Double bookkeeping. The museum presents its person in different ways - one for the ordinary public, without the problems, and one for the special interested and experts, where the problems are discussed. For example, in books in the museum shop, as special articles on the homepage or as more specialized seminars.
Forgetfulness. The problematic facts don´t exist in the museum, in exhibitions or in other museum material at all. The museum ignores the problematic facts, and the discussions about them. For example, because the staff has decided that those problems don´t belongs to the plan for the museum, or that they are so spiteful so they can be ignored.
Minimizing. The problematic facts are presented in the museum, but in a much minimized way. Often as cold facts, without taking up any underlying causes, and as there had been no discussions about it in the society. Perhaps in a remote corner of the museum.
Reduction of responsibility. The museums claim that everyone did the same. The society during the time was just like that, and our person could not do anything else - this was the historical situation that justified the person´s behavior, or at least forgave it.
Comparison. The person did really do bad things – but – in comparison to his art it´s of lesser importance. As a successful writer, composer or artist he is forgiven, and therefore the problematic questions can be forgotten or minimized at the museum
Change of museum subject. The Museum concentrates on other subjects than the person in spite of that the museum is in his or her name. For example – the main subject of the museum is the architecture, the relatives, or as an example of how people in general lived during this time.
Text and Images by Stefan Bohman.
Stefan Bohman, former director of the Musik Museum in Stockholm, and the Strindberg Museum, and former president of ICOM Sweden. Docent in Museology. Has written several books in museology and is now lecturing in museology at Stockholm and Uppsala University.