Every month, the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s new Instagram account @busch_hall hosts conversations with established and emerging scholars, contemporary artists, and museum peers on Instagram Live. Launched in February 2021, the @busch_hall Conversations series, generously supported by the German Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, presents a variety of perspectives in a thoughtful yet relaxed format.
For our first Busch Hall Conversation, Lynette Roth, the Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, spoke with Joseph Koerner, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, to consider evolving conceptions of the “Germanic” and how the Busch-Reisinger has always worn its unique identity on its sleeve. Roth and Koerner discussed how the museum, founded in 1903, has by historical necessity been reinventing itself ever since. Below is an excerpt of that conversation—we hope it inspires you to view their lively discussion in its entirety.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and accuracy.
Lynette Roth: I’m very pleased to welcome Joseph Koerner, whom I’m sure many of you know as the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture. Professor Koerner teaches and writes about the history of art in the late Middle Ages to the present day, with an emphasis on Northern Renaissance art. And of course, he has spent many years teaching with the collection of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and has written about it on a number of occasions, including the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2003.
It might be helpful for us to start literally at the beginning, because I’m not sure that everyone is familiar with the Busch-Reisinger Museum and its origins at the turn of the century as the Germanic Museum. Why would, in 1897, faculty at Harvard feel the need to propose a Germanic Museum?
Joseph Koerner: I think the most fascinating way of framing the Busch for me always has been that it’s a museum that is struggling with the idea of identity. Museums today wonder about, and often are troubled by, their identity, because there’s one identity that they want to put forward and then as circumstances, politics, and demography change, people need to reassess their identity.
In the case of the Busch, the problem of identity was there front and center in the beginning, which was a belief on the part both of German authorities and Kaiser Wilhelm II [who donated the museum’s collection of plaster casts], but also Germans in America. There was a belief that when Germans immigrated to the United States, they lost their ethnic identity. They blended too easily into the United States.
An idea took hold that there should be in the United States some place in which identity recollection, or identity reformation, could happen. And so a negotiation between Kaiser Wilhelm and Harvard faculty created a museum of photographs and casts, a historical museum—but at an inauspicious time. We’re right at the cusp of the end of the 19th century by the time the thing is built, and all the gelatin prints are coming in, and there are these beautiful things, all for historical identity formation reasons. World War I breaks out; then America joins the side against Germany, and then you have this white elephant, this strange formation in the middle of Harvard, a Germanic Museum. The term “Germanic” by the end of World War I was already very strange. If you think about intellectuals like Thomas Mann, after the First World War they’re writing books like The Magic Mountain . It’s all now totally in the rearview mirror. Then, of course, German identity comes up again in the crisis years between the wars, and the Busch-Reisinger gets a new identity when Hitler comes into power in 1933 and the democracy of the Weimar Republic goes away.
All of a sudden Harvard now has this museum again with a conflicted identity, which then increases in urgency when the United States joins the Second World War. And around that time, the curator of the Busch-Reisinger, Charles Kuhn, starts to imagine that the identity of the Busch-Reisinger will be this other identity of the “real Germany,” the “secret Germany,” or what the elitist aesthete and symbolist poet Stefan George had called “another Germany.” But it was much more the Germany of the exiled and forced émigré artists like Max Beckmann; the first original modern painting in the collection is, as you and I know because we share a love for it, the Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1934)—the most borrowed and sought-after work in the Busch-Reisinger. It was brought in specifically to rescue such objects from the cultural policy of the Nazis, who had ejected these works as “degenerate,” and to create a new identity—the identity of another Germany.
Then, after the war, even that idea of an identity starts to change, because what’s left of the “Germanic” is a kind of racialist theory having to do with tribes and an art history that really didn’t make any sense. And so the idea of the “Germanic” was contested from the moment it was put forward. In fact, there’s a whole contested idea about Germany itself, and whether it has a special character as a nation. The idea of a special character or special mission of the German nation becomes a very toxic myth. And then the idea of the German nation as having already failed develops after the Second World War, and the whole question of German guilt comes together. But during our current era in which questions about museums’ identities—that’s “museums” plural—are under fire, the Busch is notable for never having had a settled identity; it has always had a traumatic identity.
And what I think is so interesting going forward is that you have a museum—not “ready-made” because it needs to be remade—with this palimpsestic history where trauma is always linked in. Collecting and moving forward, you’ll never get rid of that. And that’s what’s great—what seems to me representative of the non-neutrality of a kind of cosmopolitan museum.
LR: You brought up so many of the issues I’ve been thinking about, which was really the impetus behind starting this virtual platform. I kept being confronted with the questions that all museums are asking themselves now about their identities and their histories: how can we think about how collections are built and to what purpose? And I kept arguing that actually the Busch-Reisinger is ideal, not just for that idea of a specific German context, this kind of Sonderweg [the “special path” that differentiates the modernization of Germany from that of other European countries], but really how we can think about identity in the 21st century.
JK: Yes, the term you just invoked, the Sonderweg, is the theory that because Germany never became a nation, it had to define itself in different ways, whether it was as “folk,” as an ethnic or racial identity, or then, after the Second World War, as somehow a failed identity. So, the term came about: the “special path,” the Sonderweg of Germans.
The Busch-Reisinger’s history among museums is a kind of Sonderweg—a strange, often ill-starred history. But the good thing, as you’re saying, is that every museum under the canopy of Harvard is a Sonderweg, including all the traumatic and problematic backdrops. It’s only that those other museums don’t wear that problematic identity outright like the Busch has always had to do.
The artist William Kentridge, not a German artist but a South African artist, was very interested in a phenomenon involving the forests of Germany: people who make paper or cut down trees for paper mills or for lumber have signs over large swaths of Germany that say “shrapnel in the wood”—the point is that if you cut one of these trees down and put it in a cutting machine, the blade breaks and people can get hurt. So they labeled whole forests with “shrapnel in the wood” after the World Wars.
For Kentridge, an artist who came of age in apartheid South Africa, that was this amazing motto for the embedded character of trauma in any quasi-natural phenomenon. You see in a lot of Kentridge’s work that little phrase “shrapnel in the wood.” And I think that the Busch is a little like that: anything you pull out, such as a plaster cast like the ones of the Hildesheim Doors, you have the question: is there shrapnel in this wood? Is there, somewhere, something that is going to break the machinery?
I prefer a museum in which you’re always encountering not just the victorious story—the march of the great art (which is also important)—but the march of art that has laments behind it, its triumphs and laments and its victims and victors. I think the historical accident of the Busch is something that is really important to keep in mind, because it makes uneasy those parts of the larger museum collections that don’t pretend to have any historical accident behind them. If there is a “French drawings show,” everybody should think “Hmmm?” almost as much as they pause to think about the “Germanic.” It should be equally problematic, and the Busch stands apart for already having been challenging and challenged.