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Museums build bridges

After 70 years, a new museum project in Germany introduces the history and cultural heritage of the Sudeten German expellees


by Michael Henker, Chair of ICOM German, Head of the Planning Staff for the Sudetendeutsches Museum; and Martina Lehmannová, Chair of ICOM Czech Republic, member of the Advisory Board for the Sudetendeutsches Museum

The project for a new museum in Munich, Germany is well on its way. It will centre on a highly specific group of people who were expelled from their homes after the end of World War II: the Sudetendeutschen, or Sudeten Germans. Thus, 70 years after the dramatic events took place, the history and cultural heritage of this German-speaking group of almost three million individuals will finally be introduced to the general public.

Human memory is fairly variable, and has tendencies to transform reality to flow in different directions: love, hate, forgiveness, hostility… One of the onerous tasks in which museums are engaged is introducing events that unfolded in the past, and describing them in accurate, unbiased manner – with valuable help from collections of artefacts. However, themes that trigger emotions still very much exist, and the case of the Sudetendeutschen is one such theme.

Focus on a fraught history

Today, the Sudetendeutschen mostly live in Germany and Austria, with a smaller portion in Czechia. Their history is a complicated one. People speaking either Czech or German lived together in the Kingdom of Bohemia, on the territory of today’s Czechia and neighbouring countries, for long centuries. Only in the 19th century did the political picture of Europe begin to transform and centre on nationalism in a hitherto unprecedented way. One phenomenon that accompanied this process was the establishment of national museums. Two groups, Czechs and Germans, began to be distinguished on the territory of today’s Czech Republic. The term Sudetendeutsch became common for German-speaking inhabitants following the post-World War I establishment of Czechoslovakia. Sudetenland became part of Hitler’s Germany after the signing of the Munich Agreement (1938); what was left for Czechs was the Protectorat Böhmen und Mähren (Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), also occupied by Nazi Germany. Following the re-establishment of Czechoslovakia after World War II, emotions that had been repressed and built up during the occupation and six-year period of war were released, which led to the Sudetendeutschen becoming a lightning conductor, struck in the form of expulsion from their homes – a method that the Allied leaders consented to at the Potsdam Conference (1945). The Sudetendeutschen had to abandon a great deal in Bohemia, but nevertheless, brought along countless skills, competences, objects and memories to the new homes that they found in Germany, and particularly, in Bavaria. 

Both Germany and Czechia are aware that it is imperative to remember this sizeable population. Both of the countries have launched initiatives to establish museums, respectively in Munich, Germany and Ústí nad Labem (formerly known as Aussig), Czech Republic. The foundation stone for the new Sudeten German Museum in Munich was laid on 16 September, 2016 by the highest officials of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Free State of Bavaria – who are also partners in financing the new museum – in a solemn ceremony. Former ICOM President Hans-Martin Hinz gave an address in his function as head of the Advisory Board for the museum. The building of the Sudeten German Museum, which will open its doors in September 2018, will be an outstanding architectural landmark in the town centre on the high bank of the Isar River, just above the renowned Deutsches Museum.

This is considered a highly significant event in Czechia, as the Sudeten German issue is still tiptoed around. However, this careful sidestepping frequently arises out of ignorance, facilitating abuse and manipulation around the issue. The museum construction and exhibition display is a crucial step to countering this. It will present the much-discussed topic of Sudeten Germanism in its physical form as preserved cultural heritage, which speaks an unambiguous language. The chimera of Sudeten Germanism will take a material shape, and the museum exhibition will provide answers to many questions. Among the selected objects is a range of items which are commemorative in nature, as well as technical artefacts, such as Böhmerland, the world’s longest motorbike. Additional gallery space will provide possibilities for special exhibitions on topics encompassing arts, history and cultural history – which is an important factor in the museum project.

Cultivating the future

Care of cultural heritage is one of the most important activities to which society is devoted. Everything that surrounds us might fade from existence: financial crises may rob us of money; a political system might be replaced faster than we are willing to admit. However, the cultural heritage that we have will always remain; nobody can ever take it away from us. It is the collective foundation of our civilisation, the most stable point upon which we can build our future. All of those who have taken part in the project for the Sudeten German Museum in Munich are well aware of this. The speeches on 16 September looked ahead to the future, rather than dwelling on the past. The museum will be a venue for dialogue across generations and regions, identification and understanding – a space providing a positive example of how culture can build bridges.

While the project to establish such a museum in Ústí nad Labem was initiated by Collegium Bohemicum, an institute devoted to cultural heritage research founded in 2006 by German-speaking people in the Czech Republic, hand in hand with leading experts, preliminary works have nearly halted. We deeply believe that the German project, financed by the Bavarian State and the Federal Republic of Germany, and run by the Sudetendeutsche Stiftung (Sudeten German Foundation), will be able to generate motivation to create a museum of Sudeten Germans in Czechia as well – allowing the story of this expelled and displaced population to be told in both countries within contemporary Europe, thereby raising the awareness of shared history.

Photo: The foundation stone for the new Sudeten German Museum in Munich was laid on 16 September, 2016 by the highest officials of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Free State of Bavaria in a solemn ceremony

©Martina Lehmannová