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Friday, 27 July 2018

Monsters and Spirits

Professor Johannes Dillinger reviews the ‘Monsters and Spirits’ (Monster und Geister) exhibition at the Städtisches Museum of Überlingen

The former Imperial free city of Überlingen on the German shore of Lake Constance is well worth a visit. It boasts not only a fantastic lakeside promenade, a beautiful park that includes the ruins of the town wall and a picturesque old town with narrow and impossibly steep lanes that eventually turn into steps, but also a fine municipal museum. The municipal museum (Städtisches Museum) of Überlingen is one of the precious few museums that won’t bother you with computers, flickering screens or blaring loudspeakers that try to hammer their version of history into the unwary visitor. It is, to a certain degree, a museum of museums: It simply presents old things in a more or less ordered space with rather little explanation.

Housed in a 15th-century city palace, the Überlingen museum boasts many kinds of exhibits. From taxidermy beetles, stone age tools, Gothic and Baroque art to a magnificent collection of dolls’ houses from the 19th and 20th centuries, and masks from the Swabian carnival that look rather sinister to persons not familiar with this rather peculiar tradition.
 

The municipal museum of Überlingen: An old-fashioned museum of everything 

Early 20th-century dolls’ houses

Now, the museum presents a special exhibition of an even more sinister kind. ‘Monster und Geister vom Mittelalter bis heute’ (‘Monsters and Spirits from the Middle Ages to the Present’) fills four rooms with about 100 exhibits. Obviously, monsters and spirits appeal to a thrill-seeking audience, but on a more academic level, they have very little in common: A monster is defined by its deformed or in some way extraordinary body. A spirit could be defined as a being without a (material) body. Not even magic really works as common denominator: some forms of magic certainly imply some kind of communication with spirits but monsters like the chimera, the unicorn or the various fish-man hybrids of early modern lore do not feature prominently in learned magic or witchcraft. It seems as if the organisers of the exhibition – a city official and a curator of the museum - brought together ‘strange’ objects from a variety of contexts and backgrounds and simply labeled the omnium-gatherum ‘Monsters and Spirits’ because the lack of focus did not allow a clearer title. Less would have been more, or rather more focus and less of a mingle-mangle would have been better.


Exotic creatures from the Orient, including a unicorn and a man with a tail, 15th century


The structure of the exhibition mirrors the lack of focus. The first two rooms are about monsters, the others deal with spirits. The section about monsters tries to bring together sea monsters and exotic beings of the Pliny tradition that featured in early modern travel books with werewolves and vampires. Most of the exhibits about the ‘exotic’ kind of monster are illustrations from late medieval and early modern books. Most of the exhibits about vampires and werewolves are modern paintings. There is not really any connection between them. The exhibition fails to address the changes in the imagery of monsters and spirits even though it is clearly a crucial subject. It would have been easy to illuminate these changes with a better selection of exhibits. The two rooms that deal with spirits show mainly modern paintings, some of them of mediocre quality. While several of the pictures impressively illustrate the personal nightmares of the artists, the exhibits say very little about the public debate about the existence of spirits in the 20th century. This is even more regrettable as the two rooms about spirits try to address subjects as complicated and diverse as Black Romanticism, exorcism, and modern witchcraft. The confused visitors turn to the large text panels on the walls that seem to offer orientation. What they get are lengthy and yet simplistic pseudo-explanations of the still popular Catholic-bashing and ‘How-can-they-dare-to-believe-in-things-we-do-not-believe-in-anymore’ varieties. Like some first year students, the organisers of the exhibition seem to confuse judgments with explanations. They do not even try to do what historians and other cultural scientist always need to do first: try to understand the ‘others’ - other times, other world views, other cultures - on their own terms. Museum exhibitions should always cater to the needs of non-experts. Thus, it would have been even more important to invite the visitors to ask why people do things that seem alien or outrageous to us instead of manipulating the audience into denouncing everything that seems to be strange or simply wrong.

From a historian’s point of view, the highlights of the exhibition are magical objects found in private homes and an 18th-century sculpture. Bits of plants and threads thrust deeply into the cracks of the beams of old houses are discovered time and again. It is very likely that these materials were supposed to represent in a magical way diseases or evil spirits. By ‘imprisoning’ them in the lifeless wood, they were kept away from the inhabitants of the house. The wads of plants and textile exhibited do not look much, but they bear witness that the belief in spirits used to be an integral part of everyday life. Much more impressive is the ‘Fire and Sword Skull’, an 18th-century wood sculpture from Überlingen: a flaming skull with a dagger or sword thrust into the right eye. What exactly this sculpture is supposed to depict is unclear. The text explaining the exhibit suggests that it might allude to the belief in spirits of the dead that appear as burning men because they have been sent back to the material world from the fires of purgatory. As these spirits were much feared, the dagger in the eye could be a symbolic defence against them. It seems to be rather more likely that the sculpture refers to a passage of the Bible, Isaiah 66: 16 “For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many.”


The mysterious ‘Fire and Sword Skull’, 18th century

We cannot escape the conclusion that the exhibition is essentially a failure. While it presents a number of interesting exhibits, its conceptual weakness and the talky but rather misleading text panels detract from its quality greatly. So, if you should happen to come to Überlingen, make sure that you see the lakeside promenade, the park with the ruins of the town wall, the picturesque old town and the dolls’ houses in the municipal museum first. If you have time to spare after that, you may spend it with ‘Monsters and Spirits’.


Review by Johannes Dillinger, Professor of Early Modern History at Oxford Brookes University

The exhibition of Städtisches Museum Überlingen ‘Monster und Geister vom Mittelalter bis heute’ is on display till December 15, 2018. Opening Hours: Tuesday till Saturday, 9am-12:30pm, 2-5 pm, Sunday and bank holidays 10am-3pm. Admission fee: 5 Euros

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