Bonn. The Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn was opened 25 years ago by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. We met for an interview with the President of the Foundation, Hans Walter Hütter.
The Haus der Geschichte in Bonn is celebrating its birthday: 25 years ago this museum was opened, a history laboratory in constant development: History wants to be reflected and told as up-to-date and current as possible. Hans Walter Hütter, president of the Haus der Geschichte Foundation since 2007, who has been there from the very beginning, has shaped and accompanied the renewal process of the permanent exhibition, knows what it means to have to adapt to the changing receptive behaviour of a very heterogeneous audience. Thomas Klieman spoke with Hütter.
"The central idea of telling contemporary history in stories is reflected in the exhibition. This sentence can be found in the very successful new book on the permanent exhibition of the Haus der Geschichte. How has this "story telling", this narrative, changed in the last 25 years?
Hans Walter Hütter: First, I would like to deal with the constants. What has remained is that we consciously considered our target groups at a very early stage. And we don't tell history in an abstract way, but personalized, through personal historical experiences. Here we want to inform, but also address emotions and inspire the formation of opinions.
What has changed?
Hütter: The receptive behaviour of visitors has changed significantly. The digital world and reading habits play an important role here. Fewer and fewer texts are read in the exhibition, and more and more information is retrieved directly from the Internet during the visit to the exhibition. One has to react to these changes. The exhibition language and design have developed. The individual objects are still the core of our exhibitions. But the framework, the environment in which the objects are presented, have a new form.
How do you deal with it?
Hütter: In the past, objects in our exhibitions were presented in a more opulent environment. More recently, the range has tended to be reduced, concentrated. Attention is thus drawn more directly to the theme, the central message. Overall, the exhibition language has become clearer.
What role do the original sounds, the contributions of contemporary witnesses play in the exhibition?
Hütter: From the very beginning, we have allowed contemporary witnesses to speak in short contributions in our exhibitions. In 2011 we integrated our own line of contemporary witnesses into the permanent exhibition. The eyewitness portal created two years ago has further strengthened the personal narrative of history in our exhibitions.
The exhibition covers 70 years. These are three generations. How do you do justice to them?
Hütter: It is important for the individual viewer to create a reference to the reality of his life, a reference to the present. One guest is more likely to be addressed by contemporary witnesses, the other by prominent objects. The temporal distance can also change the attention to a theme. Then it is a good idea to choose a different design without necessarily changing the objectives of mediation. The great art here is to select and reduce from the abundance of topics in a target-group-oriented way.
"Who does not know the past, cannot understand the present and cannot shape the future", this saying by Helmut Kohl is in times of Fakenews, alternative facts and an emerging right, which exploits the historical ignorance of parts of the population for its ideological goals, of frightening topicality. How political (are) is history, its interpretation and presentation?
Hütter: First of all: History is the construction of the past in the respective present, so history is always also political. In the reality of our life, we construct from the mass of past history that we ultimately show. The type of presentation, the focus, play a serious role here. Museums have a dual function: they convey a selection of history, they create and transport images of history. As a result, institutions also bear a great responsibility for the present and the future.
What are you talking about?
Hütter: Today, a good historical reference book reaches circulations of 3000 to 5000 copies. The historical novel often has much higher editions, which gives it the quality to create a picture of history that is, however, possibly questionable when measured against scientific standards. But the novel reaches many people, the film even more. "Ben Hur", for example, shaped the historical image of antiquity for generations despite numerous proven historical errors. In the Haus der Geschichte we have counted more than 13 million visitors to the permanent exhibition alone since its opening. These people have talked to others about it, the media have reported widely. Thus, a house of this kind has a broad and deep effect. Historical museums convey the past in historical constructs and thus create their own image of history.
There have certainly been attempts on the part of politicians to influence the interpretation of history. The accusation that Helmut Kohl attempted to turn the Haus der Geschichte into a Kohl museum that conveys his interpretation of history is inextricable.
Hütter: The initiator of the Haus der Geschichte, Helmut Kohl, never influenced the contents and methods of the museum. The concept was developed on the basis of broad political and social consensus. Multi-perspectivity is an important principle of the museum: the exhibitions and events aim to convey information on a scientific basis and encourage opinion-forming. We are permanently controlled by thousands of eyes and minds; the visitors would not accept a one-sided presentation. Added to this is the constant observation by both traditional and electronic media. And our committees: We discuss each exhibition in detail with the Scientific Advisory Board. Different generations, disciplines and scientific-political orientations are represented there. The same applies to the working group of social groups. The Board of Trustees decides on the basic lines of the programme, but does not intervene operationally.
In 2017, during one of our talks, you said: "After the restructuring is before the restructuring". When is the next castling (Rochade) in the permanent exhibition? And what is planned?
Hütter: At the beginning of 2019, we started exchanging ideas in the building: What should a contemporary historical exhibition of this size look like that will once again attract visitors for 20 years? Initial opinions differed widely on this issue. But one thing became clear: the object will remain in the foreground! But in which environment will it still be possible to discuss and decide? We have to take into account changing reception habits as well as changing leisure behaviour and, of course, the latest research results. After the anniversary, we will meet again and begin the discussion with the committees in the following year. Then the project will pick up speed. From today onwards, the renewal of the permanent exhibition in Bonn will be possible in four to five years, assuming the necessary financing.
Isn't the exhibition hall at some point too small for so much history?
Hütter: No, not at all! The attention of the guests is usually exhausted after about two hours. The challenge is to reweight. The limited space is also a healing instrument in the discussion. We ask ourselves: Is the chronological arrangement still the most suitable for the target groups? Even if chronology is a well-established structural element in history, it could also be structured thematically. Or combinations of both? In any case, I want to integrate more participative and interactive elements. The overall experience of the exhibition should be strengthened. My goal is to create networked historical landscapes, analog and digital.
The Haus der Geschichte Foundation has expanded in recent years and is also represented in the Contemporary History Forum in Leipzig, the Tränenpalast and the Kulturbrauerei in Berlin. Are further extensions planned?
Hütter: Not at the moment. We opened the building in Leipzig in 1999 and completely renovated the permanent exhibition there in 2018. The Tränenpalast is enjoying growing popularity and last year had more than 300,000 visits on an area of 500 square metres. The show at the Kulturbrauerei has already been reworked; both exhibitions in Berlin will be up to date for a few years to come. And don't forget the historical sites we look after in Bonn: In the Bundesrat, for example, we opened the exhibition "Unser Grundgesetz“ in 2016.
On 15 December you will turn 65. What then, Mr President?
Hütter: We still have a lot to do.
Would you like to continue?
Hütter: The renewal of the permanent exhibition in Bonn, the new Zentral depot and an extensive exhibition and event programme require the attention of those responsible.
So no goodbye yet?
Hütter: Let's wait and see.
Original text: Thomas Kliemann Translation: Mareike Graepel