This article provides an analysis of how military history museums in Germany, Britain, Belgium, Poland, and the United States exhibit and contextualize weapon technologies that were developed in the two world wars. The article focuses on technologies (gas warfare, the atomic bomb, tanks, and the V2 long-range rocket) that are directly connected to military success and innovation but also relate to dehumanization and destruction. By employing the analytical concepts of experientiality and of antagonistic, cosmopolitan, and entangled memory, this article demonstrates how museums can create open or closed narratives, steer the visitor toward particular interpretations, enhance or deconstruct the authentic aura of technological artifacts, and stage the symbolic potential of technologies. In addition, it shows how museums can educate visitors and allow them to experience the ambiguities, controversies, and complexities of these technologies.
Places of Progress? Technology Museums, Memory, and Education
Christian Kehrt and Daniel Brandau
“Revolutionary” technologies or large technological systems are often deemed controversial, risky, or ambivalent. Diverging interpretations clash when technological objects, such as rockets, airplanes, or nuclear reactors, are exhibited in museums or at heritage sites, with profound implications for underlying concepts of historical education. This special issue explores the argument that histories of technology have often upheld a traditional view of modern linear progress but became the focus of controversies when the social, political, and cultural conditions of perceiving and remembering these objects changed. At former “places of progress,” visitors and exhibition makers are confronted with the remains of the Industrial Revolution, colonialism, two World Wars, the Cold War, the Age of Coal, the Space Age, the Atomic Age and the Digital Age. Exhibitions and displays have been used to explain, teach, or make sense of the advents, successes, and failures of high-tech projects. Understanding technological artifacts and corresponding sites such as Chernobyl, Peenemünde, and Hiroshima as well as structures such as factories or bunkers as sites of memory (lieux de mémoire, a term coined by Pierre Nora) shifts our attention to processes of remembering modern technologies and the cases in which established narratives of progress have been supported or challenged. Questions about the ethics of technology use often seem to subvert stories of the “heroes of invention,” leaving visitors with the impression of technological ambivalence. Attempts to teach and learn about history and technology via objects and sites have been complicated, politicized, and contested.
Remembering Second World War Technologies in Rural East Germany from 1984 to 1992
Given Peenemünde’s ambivalent military and technological history, from rocket development during the Nazi period to East German naval and air bases during the Cold War, its musealization was considered both a chance and challenge during the region’s deindustrialization in the 1990s. Local residents’ support of veteran engineers promoting an apologetic view of Nazi rocketry was met with bewilderment. However, a space park project and anniversary event were spearheaded by government and industry representatives, turning a regional affair into an international controversy. The article analyzes the function of memory work and the remembrance of technological progress in rural northeastern Germany before and after German reunification. Based on archival sources and interviews with former officers and museum advocates, it traces the Peenemünde museum project through a history of ideological and biographical caesurae, enthusiasm, political promises, and socioeconomic despair.
The Uganda Railway and Memory Work in Kenya
This article is concerned with the memory of the Uganda Railway in Kenya. Built during the heyday of British imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century, the colonial railway has been a highly contested infrastructure. Drawing on museum exhibitions, public speeches, and publications, the article argues that the main narrative of the railway line as a tool of oppression began to change when the railway infrastructure gradually deteriorated in the mid-twentieth century. I show how three distinct groups (white expatriates, Kenyan-Asians, and Kenya’s political elite) were involved in creating a new public memory that popularized the Uganda Railway as a cornerstone of the postcolonial nation. Their uncoordinated but simultaneous efforts toward a new reading of the past all aimed, albeit for different reasons, at reimagining the nation. The article thus shows mechanisms of coming to terms with the colonial past in a postcolonial nation.
Michael J. Neufeld
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) remains one of the world’s most visited museums precisely because it embodies the “romance of technological progress.” From its origins in the US National Museum of the early twentieth century to the opening of its first dedicated building in 1976 and beyond, visitors have flocked to the NASM to see exhibits on the wonders of aerospace technology. An attempt to depart from that narrative in the 1990s by telling the story of the atomic bombings of Japan was crushed by an organized campaign. In the aftermath, the museum reverted to its old pattern, albeit broadened to include greater diversity in the historical actors it featured. Today, as NASM rebuilds its original building, it is again striving, albeit more cautiously, to stretch the limits of its traditional mission.
Visiting Climate for Change at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum
Lise Camilla Ruud and Erik Thorstensen
This article analyzes a current exhibition, Climate for Change, which opened at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in 2019. By engaging with the way in which the exhibition constructs a “we,” the article proceeds to examine how agency for mitigation is presented and analyzed. It assesses how futures are created and what types of futures emerge. These themes are addressed with reference to insights from museum research and energy humanities. The choices in the exhibition point toward a traditional understanding of continuities, of agency, and of future visions while tending toward a reduction of Norwegian accountability for climate change.
Narratives of Technology vs. Forced Labor at the Bunker “Valentin”
The Bunker “Valentin” in Farge, a suburb of Bremen, is one of the biggest relics of armament projects in the Second World War. Although it was built by up to 10,000 forced laborers under brutal conditions leading to a death toll of up to 1,600, it was primarily remembered as a technological masterpiece. This article describes the history of the bunker and how its remembrance changed over time. It assesses the formation of competing narratives of war technology and forced labor and explores the meaning of the material remains of the Second World War for the culture of remembrance of German war crimes at and after the end of the age of eyewitnesses.
Black Girls as Creators, Subjects, and Witnesses
Erin M. Stephens and Jamaica Gilmer
The bus was full of excited chatter as it pulled up in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (known universally as The Met) on Fifth Avenue on a cold morning in January. Thirteen girls, along with invited loved ones, had traveled for nine-and-a-half hours from Durham, NC, to view their art displayed in the exhibit, “Pens, Lens, and Soul: The Story of The Beautiful Project” (hereafter, “Pens, Lens, and Soul”). First, the girls filed off the bus to take a photograph on the steps of The Met. As their family and friends waited to disembark, they laughed and shivered while posing for numerous photographs and videos on the cold steps. As they stood at the bottom of the steps of the grand prestigious museum, the impressiveness of their accomplishment was just beginning to dawn on many of them. As she walked around the exhibit one of the artists would comment, “I feel surprised because I didn't realize it was this big of a thing and I was here and it's a thing, it's a big thing … we are capable of doing anything.”
Technofeminisms and the Promise of Computing for Girls
Kristine Blair. 2019. Technofeminist Storiographies: Women, Information Technology, and Cultural Representation. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Early Twentieth Century Girls Scrapbooking Their Lives
Leslie Midkiff DeBauche
The American high school seniors I discuss in this article graduated between 1915 and 1922, tumultuous years that included World War I, the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919, and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. During such extraordinary times, these girls did a most ordinary thing; they made scrapbooks to commemorate their high school years.