Logemann on Jaeger, 'The Second World War in the Twenty-First-Century Museum: From Narrative, Memory, and Experience to Experientiality'

Stephan Jaeger
Daniel Logemann

Stephan Jaeger. The Second World War in the Twenty-First-Century Museum: From Narrative, Memory, and Experience to Experientiality. Media and Cultural Memory / Medien und kulturelle Erinnerung Series. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020. xiv + 354 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-11-066106-4.

Reviewed by Daniel Logemann (Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation) Published on H-Poland (April, 2021) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55389

After reading Stephan Jaeger’s book, one has the impression of having been part of a long and dense museum experience. The work done by the author is impressive. And even if not agreeing with every single finding, readers will leave with a better understanding of how they could—and possibly also should—walk through museums due to Jaeger’s preparation and discussion of the material, which establish sharp instruments and clear methodology for the analysis of exhibitions.

Jaeger’s aim is clear. He analyzes twelve twenty-first-century history museums in Canada, the United States, Poland, Belgium, Great Britain, and Germany that deal with the Second World War. This setting includes not only a thematic focus of these museums but also Jaeger’s presumption that they all use various and complex presentation methods. All museum exhibitions are in one way or another influenced by museum and exhibition architecture, multimedia, and narrative structures, and many of them also use immersion strategies. They offer their visitors an experience of a multilayered museum space that creates together with visitors’ consciousness an emotional and intellectual imagination about history and memory. In doing so, museums direct visitors to assumptions and interpretations.

What distinguishes Jaeger’s study from others is that he describes the visitors’ possibilities to get attached or to distance themselves from the museum’s presentation within the concept of experientiality, which sheds light on the “interaction of narrative and reception” (p. 48). In Jaeger’s words: “This has the potential to advance the analysis of how exhibitions emotionalize the visitor; how they create proximity or distance to the historical subject-matter; how they balance or blur the historical understanding of the past with the cultural memory of the present; how they produce or steer ethical statements and narrative structures; and how they allow for reflection on methods of representing the past” (p. 7). Coming from the theory of narratology—Jaeger cites Monika Fludernik—experientiality is “the quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real-life’ experience” and therefore “becomes the analytical concept with which to examine the representational and narrative potential of an exhibition” (pp. 48, 49). Understanding fully the intention of the transfer of the concept, I would mention that experientiality for me focuses too much on the inner structure of museums and too little on the broader context of what historians tackle under the concept of historical culture. I shall come back to these debatable issues later.

After an introduction about analyzing museums by measuring their possibilities to enfold experientiality, Jaeger presents three museums that, from his point of view, are characterized by restricted experientiality: the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the Warsaw Rising Museum in Warsaw, and the Imperial War Museum in London. All of them limit experientiality because they follow a strong and unquestioned master narrative that does not allow visitors to develop their own consciousness toward (national) history. Furthermore, Jaeger sees a burden for creating space for experientiality in the fact that in all three museums an unquestioned memory culture dominates historical matters. In the end, in all three museums visitors are not animated to gain an active role.

Making a clear distinction with restricted experientiality, Jaeger sees primary experientiality as giving visitors the chance to acknowledge the staged scenography of exhibitions and allowing them “to experience perceptions and structures of the past” (p. 94). Examples of museums that foster primary experientiality are the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, the Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Kraków, and the Bastogne War Museum. In all exhibitions, experientiality prevails ideology, yet historical events are simulated. To understand Jaeger’s argumentation how several forms of experientiality can be distinguished, it is worth mentioning how he describes the mode of presentation in Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory: traveling in time while going through merely theatrical settings and staged spaces, visitors are able to establish borders between the suggested world of the exhibition and themselves as spectators.

Secondary experientiality gives visitors the possibility to interpret and understand intertwined levels of exhibitions along their own observations. It does not offer simulations as if history could be re-experienced during a museum visit. Visitors are asked to make up their own minds out of human condition in war times in the following museums: the Bundeswehr Military Museum in Dresden, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and the Topography of Terror in Berlin. Interestingly enough, these museums that offer visitors secondary experientiality are mostly based on photographs and objects and do not reconstruct settings of immersion, and—even more important—allow for multifold interpretations from different angles. When it comes, for example, to the Topography of Terror, Jaeger convinces readers that the “montage effect” and “visualization techniques” create a vivid imagination of, for instance, German terror in occupied Poland and even attach visitors emotionally (pp. 165, 171).

Following the discussion of restricted, primary, and secondary experientiality by giving three examples of each type, Jaeger turns his attention to transnational museums, namely, the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst, the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, and the House of European History in Brussels. Quite logically, these museums, more than the previous ones, focus on collective experiences and not on one national entity. All forms of experientiality are visible in these settings: the best example for secondary experientiality is the German-Russian Museum, where a cleverly built comparison (“simultaneity”) between German and Russian history and memory accompanies visitors (p. 174). The Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk allows for secondary experientiality, presenting experiences of many collectives, yet it relies heavily on a master narrative of Polish victimhood due to German and Soviet occupation and terror. Reading the short chapter about the House of European History, it becomes clearer that for Jaeger secondary experientiality museums are good in storytelling, which, according to him, is lacking in the Brussels museum. In addition, no networking effects of exhibition layers are happening there; one almost feels the author’s disappointment when he concludes that the House of European History offers a restricted experientiality.

As if these dense chapters of analysis and comprehension were not enough, three cross-over topics follow. Jaeger explores strategies of presenting perpetration through Holocaust sections, suffering through the topic of air war, and the role of art in war museums. Even if agreeing with the author that art can help visitors to imagine historical experiences, the topic of art is a little bit out of order—especially when considering that only a few of the discussed exhibitions make use of pieces of art. More convincing is Jaeger’s attempt to compare museums’ strategies to show perpetrators and victims in a cross section about many exhibitions. The Holocaust in most museums is presented as a singular crime, yet it is at the same time structurally embedded within violence of war. In Jaeger’s interpretation, once again especially the German exhibitions create the possibility for secondary experientiality.

Since Jaeger states in the beginning of his book that he wants to “avoid judgment about which method is ‘better,’” at the end the reader gets a clear impression why primary and, even moreso, secondary experientiality are somehow the result of more advanced strategies of the representation of history (p. 12). Museum exhibitions characterized by experientiality allow visitors to dismantle the techniques with which arguments and interpretations are presented. If this is made possible for Jaeger, the chosen technique/media and also the connection with visitors—be it cognitively or emotionally—are secondary attributes. He is clearly critical about ideological discourses not giving a picture of history’s complexity. For him the benefit of analyzing museums by making use of the concept of experientiality helps “to understand how exhibitions allow for distantiation, for openness and closure, and how they manipulate the visitor into specific didactic, ideological, or ethical beliefs” (p. 307).

A question remains: does experientiality in Jaegers’s concept also explain how museums “react to existing cultural memory” (p. 306)? The author sticks mostly to the museums and their inner logics. Only on rare occasions, for example, when discussing the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk (which was in the eye of a nationwide conflict of how to present Polish history), does Jaeger explore a bit more about the role of historical culture in societies. Is it because of that additional context that I have the impression that Jaeger’s analysis of the museum in Gdańsk gives a more complete picture of how exhibitions evolve from complex constellations?

In all other cases the gaze of visitors decides if an exhibition is experiential or not while circumstances for curatorial decisions are not consequently taken under consideration. Not to misunderstand me, this perspective on museums is fully legitimate. Yet history and memory are very much influenced by politics and society. When not interpreting the connection between museums’ representations and historical culture, one simply can miss the evidence of why a certain discourse ends up in a certain presentation of history. Astonishing enough, the vast majority of secondary experientiality can be observed in Germany; hence, in Poland we see a mixture with a tendency of restricted and primary experientialty, and the same is true for Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. I guess that these tendencies of elaborating experientiality in museums have first of all to do with discourses within societies, for example, seeing themselves as “victims” and “perpertrators.” These discourses determine how history can be presented in public and how far ideological strains of memory influence exhibitions.

The subtitle of the book—“From Narrative, Memory, and Experience to Experientiality”—is maybe too big a promise when one asks how narratives and memories evolve in societies and influence museum presentations. Yet it gives an impression of Jaeger’s intention, which he is able to fulfill to a high degree by a dense and reflective interpretation of history museums. I myself, knowing most of the European museums under discussion, see great potential in Jaeger’s access and reading of museum exhibitions and was delighted by many of the relevant interpretations, inviting further reflections, of this recommendable book.

Citation: Daniel Logemann. Review of Jaeger, Stephan, The Second World War in the Twenty-First-Century Museum: From Narrative, Memory, and Experience to Experientiality. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55389

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