Witnesses of the catastrophe What will happen to the 400 flood objects in the Haus der Geschichte?

Bonn/Kreis Ahrweiler · The Haus der Geschichte in Bonn has already added and catalogued 400 objects related to the 2021 flood in its depot. What are the challenges for the staff with these objects? And what will happen to them?

  This mud-smeared child's doll that was washed up in Bad Neuenahr on the night of the flood is now in the depot of the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn.

This mud-smeared child's doll that was washed up in Bad Neuenahr on the night of the flood is now in the depot of the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn.

Foto: Benjamin Westhoff

What do a shovel, a doll and a box of banknotes have in common? At first glance, not much. But packed in boxes, stacked side by side on a table in the depot of the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, you can see the common context: they are testimonies to the flood disaster that so horrifically hit the Ahr and parts of North Rhine-Westphalia last July. It is not yet clear when they can be used for an exhibition or for research. What is important, however, is that the objects, many from private donors, have come to the museum quickly.

There are many reasons for this. "We have to collect things now that will be relevant later," explains the new director of the collection, Manfred Wichmann. For example, when there is an important political protest march, it is important for him and his team to directly acquire a document of the event, a protest placard or suchlike, for the collection. Since you can't buy an object like this afterwards somewhere or bid for it at an auction, you have to take it with you directly.

In addition, and this plays a very important role in the case of objects from the flood disaster, the objects have to be professionally inspected and then conserved. In the case of objects from the Ahr, such as one of the thousands of shovels that were used there during the clean-up, this also means that the mud has to be conserved.

A special challenge for the restoration team: preserving the dried mud.

It's not an easy task, as head conservator Iris Lasetzke reports when talking about her work: "We're working against our usual maxim of storing objects as dust- and dirt-free as possible. So in order to keep the mud on the exhibits, we first had to experiment with ultrasound diffusers, stabilisers and spraying. In the meantime, she and her colleagues have tried out various techniques. In addition, however, there is the challenge that no two objects are the same, which means that they present different challenges. The treatment of two donated photo albums was also complicated: "We had to remove moisture and mould, of course, but without destroying all visible traces of flooding," says Lasetzke.

400 objects directly related to the flood disaster and mainly from the Ahr valley have found their way into the Haus der Geschichte in recent months. In addition to equipment already used for reconstruction, mud-smeared wine bottles and personal mementos such as photos from the night of the flood, there are also such unusual objects as a mud-splattered tumble dryer. "We don't just want to document human tragedies here, but also show the economic and financial damage the flood caused," says Wichmann, explaining the wide range of objects collected.

And he also supplies the stories about the dryers: "They are actually commercially available dryers that the Bundesbank had bought to dry the many wet, caked and silted banknotes and to save them if possible." This did not work for all of them, as a look into a thick box of cancelled hundreds and fifties shows.

Many aspects of the flood catastrophe are to be exemplified by the objects

A mud-smeared, eyeless child's doll is particularly eye-catching in the collection. It can be used to tell a lot of stories and explain why such an object is perfect for the collection, Wichmann continues. The doll was donated to him and his team by pastor Heiko Marquardsen from Bad Neuenahr. It was washed up in the church of St. Pius, and the pastor unceremoniously added it to a small memorial he had set up on the first days after the flood. "So there is also a personal story associated with this children's doll," says Wichmann. "And when it is soon to be seen online or later in an exhibition, we naturally hope to learn more about the doll's owner."

  A shovel is an example of the willingness to help and the solidarity that was shown in the Ahr region, say Manfred Wichmann, Director of the Collection, and Iris Lasetzke, Head Conservator.

A shovel is an example of the willingness to help and the solidarity that was shown in the Ahr region, say Manfred Wichmann, Director of the Collection, and Iris Lasetzke, Head Conservator.

Foto: Benjamin Westhoff

Building trust with the donors

It is clear to him and his colleague Judith Koberstein, who was mainly responsible for communicating with the donors, that you have to show empathy and build trust, especially when dealing with the donors and those affected by such a painful catastrophe. Their names will, of course, be given only when they want. Stories and backgrounds to the objects have been meticulously documented by the staff members. This information will forever be attached to the objects as metadata. "The process is not yet complete. Of course, we want to exhibit the objects and hope that they will then have an interaction with the public," says Wichmann.

  Even a pile of money that is no longer worth anything is a testament to the flood.

Even a pile of money that is no longer worth anything is a testament to the flood.

Foto: Benjamin Westhoff

One testimony of the flood has already found its way into the temporary exhibition “Heimat” in the museum. Many more will soon be available online. What relevance they will one day have for research, for example, into climate catastrophes cannot yet be estimated.

(Originaltext: Raphaela Sabel; Translation: Jean Lennox)