Museums and the Power of Facts
A unique collection of museums sits on an island in the center of Berlin. Beginning in 1830, Prussian Kings and German Emperors built four large museums on the so-called Museumsinsel, Museum Island, now designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. A fifth museum was added in 1930.
These great neoclassical buildings displayed the enormous art collections of German monarchs, demonstrating their wealth, power, and cultured taste. Showing off vast collections of painting and sculptures was one means of competing with the other ruling families of Europe, proud of their self-appointed status as god-like rulers of the most civilized human societies.
In the 19th century, Germany was a world leader in scientific research and discovery. The German model of universities as scientific centers of teaching and unbiased research uniting the arts and sciences influenced higher education across Europe and the US. In the first years that Nobel prizes in science were given, from 1901 to the beginning of World War I, Germany won more than any other country.
At this moment of German leadership in the pursuit of knowledge, interest in the long history of human societies developed into new scientific disciplines in the Western world. The study of human history became systematized into the fields of archaeology, ethnography, and anthropology. One of the museums on the Museumsinsel, the Neues Museum (New Museum, opened in 1855), was devoted to organizing and displaying the ethnological and archaeological artifacts that German scientists were busily digging up where ancient cultures had thrived around the eastern Mediterranean.
Heavily damaged during World War II, the Neues Museum was closed for 70 years until it reopened in 2009. Once again, its halls display remarkable objects of human creation during the past 5000 years.
As a teenager, I was fascinated by the story of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who was determined to find the site of Homer’s Troy on the Turkish coast. His excavations and those of other Europeans contributed to the understanding of the development of human cultures. European scientists in the late 19th century used such artifacts to formulate the so-called Three Age system, dividing human history into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages.
The comparative study of thousands of artifacts unearthed on Cyprus from the millennium before Christ’s birth allows us to understand the successive waves of settlers, conquerors, and traders in the eastern Mediterranean, where the most advanced human societies outside of China developed. The Neues Museum holds one of the world’s most important collections of documents written on papyrus, whose study by linguistic scientists revealed the succession of languages in ancient Egypt.
At the same time, German historians reshaped the writing of history from the glorification of great leaders, powerful nations, and military victories to a scientific investigation of what happened in the past. Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) moved the historical profession toward the study of archival documents in order to understand “how things actually were”.
The fundamental principle upon which both science and history were founded was the reliance on the understanding and interpretation of empirical information, in short, facts. While there may be disagreement about what data means, scientists of all kinds, physical and social, all over the world, came to base their work on reliable evidence.
After the Nazis took over in 1933, these hard-won scientific insights were rejected. Human history was rewritten to demonstrate the superiority of white northern Europeans. Racist beliefs became state policy, unwelcome science was disparaged as a Jewish conspiracy, and modern art was labeled “degenerate”. Journalism based on real events was branded as lies and replaced with a state propaganda of alternative facts. Eventually the big lies at the heart of Nazi ideology led to their own destruction, but not before they did unprecedented damage to Europe and its people.
There are always those who insist on mythical understandings of history and who reject science if it conflicts with their ideologies. A racist dictatorship must suspend a population’s belief in the value of facts and the primacy of evidence in order to sustain the myths which legitimize its inhumanity. Seekers of illegitimate power always create distorted narratives to justify their dominance. Freedom and justice depend on popular insistence on learning the truth about themselves, their world and their rulers.
Science, history and journalism are the means of discovering those truths, figuring out what they mean, and communicating that to everyone. A society which does not protect these fundamental human tasks from the enemies of truth risks losing its freedom.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 28, 2017
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