This summer, I studied abroad in the Plato in Berlin program through the Princeton Philosophy Department, along with another member of the SAB, Grace. Although the class itself was focused on Plato’s Republic, our co-curricular excursions were primarily—and perhaps accidentally—focused on the theme of curating cultural spaces. I say that this was an accidental theme because the various walking tours and museum tours we went on were designed for us to gain a deeper understanding of Berlin (and Germany)’s history, rather than a deeper understanding of the presentation of Berlin (and Germany)’s history. Throughout these experiences, I came to realize just how much I was affected by “curatorial decisions,” or some variant of this notion, in my daily life. As such, I came to realize the immense importance of cultural institutions, in their capacity to determine what and how we remember moments of our past. I came away from this study abroad experience more sensitive to two aspects of the “curated” story, realizing that curated objects and spaces tell as much about the objects being presented as they do about the disposition of the presenter.
The museum visits we took as a class began with a tour of the Altes Museum and ended with a tour of the Pergamon and Neues museums. Strikingly, both tour guides opened their tours with the comments: “Beware of all that you see. Nothing is as it appears.” Both tour guides wished to bring our attention to the preponderance of “fake” objects or replicas within the museum. The Altes Museum tour guide, in particular, was concerned with educating us on the importance of Ancient Greek imagery in the building of the Prussian Empire. An important component of the empire rested on the Prussian government’s claims that, like the English and the French, it too had a long history, one descended from the Greeks. The objects preserved in the Altes Museum, therefore, served the purpose of concretizing that claim for the public, providing a national identity for the Prussian visitor. It was during this tour that I realized the immense impact that the engineering of space could have on tasks as grand as building an empire.
The Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany
Our tour guides’ caution that we should view the museum objects with a critical eye seemed to presume that the interpretations that the cultural institutions gave of those museum objects were somehow bad. One tour guide even referred to the use of those objects as “propaganda.” The relationship that the tour guides were identifying was the one between the objects being presented and the presenters of the objects. As such, the Altes Museum was not just a museum of ancient Greek objects, but rather a museum that demonstrated the Prussian government’s interpretation of ancient Greek objects. I saw this theme throughout the rest of my time in Berlin. For instance, in the center of Berlin there was the TV tower, towering over all other buildings in its proximity. Meant to demonstrate Soviet power and technological advancements, it preserved not just notions of progress, but specifically Soviet notions of progress.
The TV Tower in Berlin, Germany
However, the more I thought about the ideas of memorialization and preservation, the more I realized that the curator’s role in giving an interpretation to the objects being presented was both unavoidable as well as not entirely negative. The Soviet TV Tower makes the first point clear. What perspective or interpretation would a Soviet TV Tower preserve if not the Soviet one? It would seem almost nonsensical to suggest that the memorial could preserve a “pure” notion of progress, undefined by the cultural and historical context within which it exists. Likewise, perhaps it would be making an impossible demand to require that a Prussian museum of ancient Greek objects preserve a “pure” conception of Greek antiquity, rather than the Prussian interpretation of Greek antiquity. This, of course, should not be taken to be an endorsement of propaganda, which leads to my second point. Museum and other cultural institutions and preserved spaces can be put to many uses. It is up to us-the museum goers—to debate the benefits of those uses, i.e. the benefits of a particular curatorial schema. But without the existence of those museums and those preserved cultural spaces, no such debates would be able to emerge.
I will give one last anecdote to illustrate this final point. During our tour of the Neues Museum, we were led to a room that had suffered severe damages during previous bombings of Berlin. But why would such destruction of this cultural institution have been so devastating? Because the museum is crucial to helping its society preserve its ties to its past. Without the museum and the museum’s interpretations of preserved objects, the society would have difficulty with the process of remembering itself. Thus, we may benefit both from a cultural institution’s manipulation of space as well as the existence of the space itself.