Controversy continues to surround the “Design of the Third Reich” exhibition at the Design Museum den Bosch in Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. The exhibition opened earlier this month to protests from local groups, including members of the local communist party, over fears that it may be misused by some visitors to glorify the exhibits.
The 277 pieces that make up the exhibition are all representative of Nazi design. Swastikas hang on the walls, and most controversially, a red swastika made from red carpets, created by artist Ralph Posset, was placed at the entrance to the exhibition when it opened. The items include a 1943 VW Beetle, posters, and films by Leni Riefenstahl, including her documentary of the Berlin Olympiad in 1936.
Nazi ideology permeated culture
The exhibits, from postage stamps to Arno Breker’s sculpture of a naked man representing the Nazi vision of physical perfection, shows how ideology permeated the culture through both everyday artefacts as well as the fine arts. Cutlery stamped with the swastika is on show along with many magazines aimed at target audiences ranging “from mothers to soldiers, and young girls to international visitors, everyone was individually targeted…each element…was designed. Nothing was left to chance during the mass rallies”.
The themes show how Nazi ideology was full of contradictions, fuelled by an obsession with purity. An ideology based often on manufactured history, Nazism focussed on the future through a blend of romance and the latest technology. Even as the first death camps were being constructed, the face Nazism showed to the world was successful and prosperous.
“Provocative”: Association of Dutch Anti-Fascists
The Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich, Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Eyewitness Museum in Beek have loaned items for the exhibition, but they are not officially partnering with the Design Museum.
Describing the exhibition as “provocative”, The Association of Dutch Anti-Fascists called on the authorities to close it down. Defending his decision to continue, the Design Museum’s director Timo de Rijk denied that there was any glorification involved: “I would not be doing this if I thought we were, but I can understand that they are aware of that kind of evil in history.”
De Rijk pointed out that this was not the first exhibition to display Nazi-era artefacts. However, he admitted in an opinion piece for ArtNet that it was sensitive and that “a lot of people in the museum sector also felt ambushed by the theme”. The response to the museum’s decision, he agreed, had been “a little stronger and more intense even than we had anticipated”.
Apart from one exhibit, the VW, photography is completely banned within the museum to avoid visitors taking selfies. Describing the “extraordinary measures” the museum had taken, spokeswoman Maan Leo said that additional staff had been posted within the rooms and only 50 people were allowed in at any time. Tickets are now only available online.
Racist ideology exposed and analysed
In this way, the museum intends to avoid any issues around the exhibition such as the taking of selfies in front of the displays. Describing the exhibition as having a documentary feel to it, de Rijk said: “From the start we explain that this was a racist ideology and that the party’s aim was to establish a racist volk culture. The exhibition has the feel of a documentary.”
A film introduces and explains Nazi design to the visitors, including Riefenstahl’s propaganda work and Porsche’s design for the Beetle, as well as the design of the gas chambers in the death camps. In this way, the museum shows how the Nazis mastered design to manipulate and destroy on a massive scale. Emphasising the importance of not only looking at the benefits of culture but also at its repugnant side, the museum argues that analysing “how the influencing processes worked at the time” enables us to wholeheartedly say “never again”.
Manipulative power of Third Reich propaganda revealed
Describing the museum as “walking a tightrope act”, the director of the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel in the Hague nonetheless agrees that ultimately the exhibition’s exposure of the manipulating techniques of the Third Reich is “fundamentally good”. Many visitors agree.
Jan de Vries, a history teacher from Arnhem commented that “This exhibition has a very powerful message that terror can come in a beautiful disguise.” The museum claims that design made a “ huge contribution… to the development of the evil Nazi ideology” and that their exhibition shows clearly “design as an instrument in the hands of the ultimate forces of darkness”.
The exhibition is one of several events including lectures and tours to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the town of den Bosch. It can therefore also be viewed as a reminder of the possible fate not only of den Bosch, but also many other towns and indeed nations, had Nazism prevailed.
About the author – Miriam Bibby
Miriam Bibby has worked at Beamish Museum, Manchester Museum, Clan Armstrong Trust Museum and Gilnockie Tower giving her a broad overview of the museum sector. She has written and edited a number of magazines and developed an Egyptology distance learning course for University of Manchester.