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Pandemic to find its way into the museum: Haus der Geschichte collects Corona exhibits

Pandemic to find its way into the museum : Haus der Geschichte collects Corona exhibits

Immediately after the first restrictions in March 2020, the Haus der Geschichte began collecting documents and exhibits on the pandemic. Here’s why a beer wreath is among the first pieces…

Strictly speaking, it's just a cardigan and a jumper hanging in the display case at the Haus der Geschichte. But in the historical context they become real contemporary witnesses. It has to do with the former wearers. In July 1990, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (jumper) invited Chancellor Helmut Kohl (cardigan) to his dacha in the Caucasus village of Archys in order to hold decisive talks there on the further course of German unification. On a walk to the bank of the Selemchuk river, which was accompanied by photographers, both politicians wore the said clothes. A political staging, which should show the world how relaxed, perhaps even friendly, the atmosphere was.

Germany's first corona hotspot

One day the actually unspectacular blue beer wreath from Gangelt will tell how it all began with Corona. At least in Germany. The beer wreath circulated at the legendary Kappensitzung of the carnival association "Langbröker Dicke Flaa" with around 300 participants in the municipality of Gangelt, Heinsberg district, on 15 February 2020, which was attended by a couple infected with Covid-19. Germany's first hotspot. "The president of the carnival association left us the beer wreath, his cap and other pieces," says Dietmar Preißler, "the beginning is particularly important for the historian. Preißler's database already contains around 450 exhibits relating to the pandemic.

"With the lockdown we got into action", says Preißler, Director of the collection of the Haus der Geschichte Foundation in Bonn, "as a museum for contemporary history, this is our task, we have to observe the present and react immediately if something happens". "We quickly realised that a medical-historical event was taking place in Germany that was worth documenting.“

The Haus der Geschichte does not collect items randomly. Within a very short time, the two institutions agreed on a Corona collection concept that defines the strategy on 25 pages and provides criteria for the Foundation's houses in Bonn, Berlin and Leipzig.

Objects with high expressive value

Preißler and his colleagues developed similar concepts for the end of coal mining, for the issue of refugees. "It's all about content and objects with a high expressiveness when they are shown in an exhibition," explains Preißler.

After the lockdown, they sat down together directly in accordance with the motto of the Foundation's President, Hans Walter Hütter, "now you can sit at home and think about it". And a concept was developed that encompasses the following areas of the collection: Corona in everyday life, corona and politics, corona and economics, corona and media, corona and culture, corona and medicine, corona and death. "We can work along these red threads.“

The significance of the corona pandemic was obvious to everyone, says Preißler and recalls similarly formative medical-historical events in Germany: the introduction of the pill, the thalidomide scandal, AIDS. "Corona is not a hype heated up by the media; it is becoming apparent that it will continue to occupy us for a long time to come, reaching far into the social and political realms.

The mask as a symbol for the pandemic

"The mask is of course the symbol of the pandemic," says Preißler and pulls his personal copy out of his jacket pocket: a face mask with an emblem of his football club VfB. "VfB and HSV were the first football clubs to start, the others followed suit," he reports. He collects masks from everyday life, improvised models to luxury accessories that go with neckerchiefs and handkerchiefs, collects caricatures and eyewitness reports, magazine covers, TV recordings - "on every talk show people talk about Corona“.

The entire inventory of a drive-in test station is among the finds, as are documents on the course of digital school and university life in Corona times. Kai Wohlgemuth's Pop Art portrait of a nurse in a Superman costume was brought to the house: "The 'Super-Nurse' stands for the everyday heroes of the pandemic," says Preißler. Together with partners, he is scouring the web for reports of the pandemic. And there are extraordinary pieces, such as the ball and a jersey from the first Ghost Game between Cologne and Mönchengladbach on 11 March 2020. Carefully and wearing white gloves, the collection director takes the ball out of the box as if it were a medieval crown. A colourful beer mug with the inscription "Oktoberfest 2020" stands for major events that did not take place. The collection also includes an invitation card to the 60th birthday of a friend of Preißler with the stamp "cancelled".

How far may the state go?

Where and when will the Corona exhibits be on display? The director of the collection could imagine a Corona chapter in a revised permanent exhibition. What would he show there? Preißler evades this with a smile: He is only responsible for collecting, for presenting to other colleagues. "The mask as an icon will certainly be there."

Another major topic in the Corona spectrum is protest behaviour and the question of how far the state can go with its measures. And then he shows a "gravestone" which members of the Identity Movement placed in front of the constituency office of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Stralsund: It calls for freedom of the press, freedom of movement and freedom of assembly; a mask establishes the link to the pandemic.

Good concept by the Haus der Geschichte

At Corona, the Haus der Geschichte has reacted in an exemplary, quick and systematic way. Are there perhaps also topics that the Haus der Geschichte has overlooked? The director of the collection laughs: from 1988 onwards, he has recorded all the important trends; before that, he had not been working at the house, which opened in 1994. Seriously, he says, it is of course annoying that documents about the '68 revolt, for example, could only be acquired retrospectively. Preißler: "It was a good concept to found a Haus der Geschichte that collects documents of the time directly according to the principle 'from the street to the museum'. And: "We are creating an invaluable fund of cultural memory."

(Original text: Thomas Kliemann / Translation: Mareike Graepel)