A night at the local history museum


Image: Tiny Lüneburg on top of massive geological layers

I left my hometown in Northern Germany 20 years ago to live in the UK. It has been interesting to watch the changes in Lüneburg from afar – from the re-development of the small local university into Leuphana to the integration of the town into the nearby city of Hamburg’s transport system. Two building projects have recently been at the centre of attention: an extravagant and pricey central building for Leuphana University designed by US architect Daniel Libeskind, and a new museum of local history that brings together natural and human history. This year, I finally managed to visit both, and, a few weeks ago, I had the luxury of having the museum to myself for one whole afternoon, while people were out doing last minute Christmas preparations. I was curious how the museum connected the different aspects that made the town, and was not disappointed.


Image: Leuphana Audimax. Source: NDR.

Museum Lüneburg joins an existing landscape of museums in town that include the German Salt Museum (the town’s wealth was based on salt, an important food preservative in the Middle Ages), the Northern German Brewery Museum (did you know that sociologist Niklas Luhmann came from a family of local brewers and owned a pub?) and the controversially titled East Prussian National Museum (the town’s population doubled with refugees from this region after WW2, including some of my own family). It brings together the collection of the former local Natural History Museum and the Museum of the Principality of Lüneburg that were both previously combined in a ‘Knight’s Academy’ collection that was used to prepare young 18th and 19th century aristocrats for university. Conceived in 2007 to update the presentations of the museum contents, the new and rather beautiful museum was finally opened in 2015.


Image: The Museum Lüneburg by day. Photo: Bernd Hiepe

From the UK, I was used to not paying for public museums, so I accidentally walked in without going to the information desk first. After being politely alerted to the entry fee, I purchased a ticket – and delighted the museum worker by telling her that I was from abroad (“this will look great in our statistics!”) – phew! The 8 Euros turned out to be rather good value for money, considering that I spent three hours trawling through two levels (thankfully, entry is free for under-18s and students, and there are a variety of discounts). I was actually surprised how long I spent there, considering that I was familiar with much of the material. I could easily have spent more time there, but the building was closing for the evening. So, what kept me fascinated for so long?


Image: One of the many (bilingual) museum panels

First of all, I really loved the combination of big and small narrative arches. To me, the museum managed to shuttle back and forth between natural and human history, and between references across time. I emerged from the tour with an uncanny sense that everything is now, rather than somewhere located in the past. The earth had shoved together this strange place, and we’re still (badly) managing what’s underneath and around us. It very much felt like walking through a local version of Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.


Image: Lüneburg on the move!

The exhibition began with geological history and especially drew attention to the formation of the salt domes that the town is famous for. I especially loved the 3-D model of the town with its geological layers underneath (photo at the beginning of this post) – a very humbling experience. I also liked the many framed cross-sections and ground formation models, some of which illustrated movement over time as well as the current state.


Image: One of those beautiful cross-sections

The following section introduced local wildlife and showed past and present occupations such as shepherding and river pearl harvesting. Due to the town’s dependency on the salt production, which required copious amounts of firewood, the surrounding forests were decimated so badly that an entirely new landscape developed – Lüneburg Heath. Add to this peat production from the local moors, and you might understand how, for centuries, the outskirts were shunned as a bleak desert. However, with the rise of Romanticism, the landscape became reinterpreted to such a degree that it started to give rise to a tourism industry. Many German Heimatfilme are set in the Heath and its sheep filled purple bloom, and there is also a new soap opera called ‘Rote Rosen’ (Red Roses) set in the town, so the tourists keep on coming.


Image: Recent touristic portrayal of the Totengrund (dead ground/grounds of the dead) on Lüneburg Heath.

The next section was dedicated to local power struggles and how these tied in to wider dynamics – struggles between centres and peripheries, nobles and burghers, Catholics and Protestants. Brutal changes marked local developments, including the destruction of the town of Bardowick – an extremely powerful place in the Middle Ages, but unwilling to cooperate with Henry the Lion who practically erased the place in response and granted the tiny village of Lüneburg town status instead. Local myths were folded in, too, such as folk heroes, a strange moon cult around the market place’s water feature, and the mysterious appearance of materials from the Middle East.


Image: Replica of the Ebstorf Map (original destroyed in WW2)

Education and knowledge was also a big topic, since the area was littered with monasteries, one of which was responsible for creating the 13th century Ebstorf Map. As in many other places at the time, a new relationship to the world was formed, which not only resulted in new maps, but in new scientific instrumentation and ordering systems.


Image: Wendland traditions, old and new…

The final section then brought together more recent history with everything else that had gone on before. Pottery and other artefacts from various ages and people gave the impression of an on-going familiar domesticity, not just across time, but also across different human species and other cultures. For instance, traditional headdresses from the Wendland area were juxtaposed with anti-nuclear protest versions of those hats (see image above), since the salt domes are now being used for nuclear waste storage. In the same section, the story of the Heath from desert to tourist destination was treated in more detail, but also the Nazi’s use of medieval and pagan traditions to forge local culture (such as a barrel race on horseback through the town). The heavy uptake of ‘pagan culture’ amongst neo-Nazis still makes celebrations such as winter or summer solstice celebrations problematic – celebrations that tend to have very positive connotations in the UK (when I tell my friends in Germany that I went to a UK friend’s solstice celebration, they look at me in shock).


Image: The synagoge of Lüneburg before its destruction. Source: Jüdische Gemeinden

The museum’s dealings with the local National Socialist past was particularly engaging, despite the comparatively small space dedicated to it. A 3-D town model built by a local Social Democrat politician and Nazi opponent was used to narrate the history of over 20 sites of Nazi crime. This included the destruction of the enormous local synagogue and the persecution of its congregation, the transformation of a progressive mental health clinic to a euthanasia programme, but also many small, insidious ways such as charity, local history and sports programmes, which helped Nazism gain such popular following. Remarkably, quite a few of the artefacts and description implicated existing local families, businesses and politicians, to show how horrific events from the time still benefit the perpetrators and the local population.


Image: Rewilding Exhibition poster

Following on, a temporary exhibition gave information on the rewilding debate – the reappearance of wolves and other previously disappeared animal species in the forests. In a mostly rural area such as that surrounding Lüneburg, the debate is almost bigger than the refugee debate, although themes tend to overlap: do wolves contribute to keeping the local deer and wild boar population in check that is spiralling out of control due to biofuel related monoculture? Or do wolves ‘not have a place in Europe anymore’ and ‘should stay in the East where there is more space, and they can do whatever they want’?


Image: Middle Eastern Buffet in Kaltenmoor, housed by the AWO (German Social Democrats affiliated charity). Source: AWO

Sadly, I did not have much time left for this exhibit, but I think that the museum did not seek to make the natural and human history connection here. This uncomfortable intersection, however, made me wonder whether the museum could highlight some of the international/cross-cultural connections of the town, in particular in connection with the refugees debate and the high occurrence of mostly Asian ‘mail order brides’ in rural areas. Are people, things and practices from other places really a new phenomenon (e.g. where do those “German potatoes” really come from?), or is Germany particularly good at erasing such influences? The manifold attempts at suppressing of Afro-Germans come to mind, but also early Middle Eastern influences. Coming from a family with a diverse ethnic background, and from an area of town with a high immigrant population (Kaltenmoor) that is frequently portrayed in the media as a ‘social problem area‘, some of the exhibits that implied outside influences made me wish to probe such connections more deeply.

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