Close-Up Private snapshots in the Museum der Dinge – Headless into the evening

Photo: Museum der Dinge

Swinging family parties and lunch with the swastika: The Berlin Museum der Dinge is exhibiting private photo albums as time documentation. No matter if you grew up in East or West Germany, just about everybody is familiar with such parties in the family living room. 

That was a super day at the beach. A fairytale wedding. The best day of your life. How do families hold on to their histories? How do they pass on their memories to the next generation? Since the invention of photography and before the digital revolution, the photo album was the preferred means. With pictures of birthdays and holidays, portraits and snapshots, photo albums documented what was important in the family, what the family members were proud of and what made them happy.

The “Foto Album” exhibition in the Berlin Museum der Dinge shows what the private pictorial narratives of German families looked like in the 20th century. The photos – mostly by anonymous photographers – are taken from the museum’s archives. A bequeathed collection from the Berlin artist family Berg is also included.

The exhibition is conceived as a giant photo album that allows insights into familial and other intimate moments. At the same time, the viewer learns much about the times in which the photos were taken. The general history of past decades is also reflected in the personal experiences of the individuals.

Familiar scenes

One sees photos, for example, that shows life in the Nazi era. One family sits together at the lunch table with a swastika hanging in the background. The Berlin wall also features just as casually in later motifs. In both colour and monochrome photos, German history is presented in the prism of the personal.

With time, the pictures increasingly disengage from their private memento character. They become historical documents.

Through these private photos, viewers from subsequent generations experience how people looked earlier, how they spent their free time, which political convictions and daily habits they had and what constituted their way of life. In looking through the albums, visitors to the exhibition can also think about who the pictured person was and how his or her life went. They see a smile, the hug of a beloved person or someone doing a funny pose. Even if we don’t know the people in the photos, an emotional closeness is created because we recognise our own lives and memories in the motifs. One shot shows a lively family party, for example, that looks a little weird because of the old-fashioned clothes worn by the guests. But still it is a familiar scene.

Journey into the past

The digital age has made the medium of photography accessible to all and at all times. It was different in the past: The contents of the photo album had emotional value to which only certain people had access. Family and friends could wallow in nostalgia flipping through the photo album and travel back into the past.

Digital photographs also picture countless situations that provide information on the everyday lives of people today. However, the difference is that photos have now become a public thing. They are shared on social media and are accessible to many other people with whom there is not necessary a close relationship.

Illusion of perpetuity

The “Foto/Album” exhibition appears to want to map out exactly this difference. It asks the question as to what extent the reproduction and the accessibility of photos have demystified the moment they were taken and the later encounters with the photo.

A commonality between intimate, analogue and digital, public photography is a person’s need to capture moments in their life. In this way, the exhibition in the Museum der Dinge also provides impetus to consider the past. A photo is perhaps an illusion of perpetuity but yet an illusion that allows people to seem present in some way even after death.