Panta rei – Thoughts on the New Year

Jürgen Nießen / pixelio.de

Panta rei – everything flows. Not least when dealing with history, one realizes how much everything is in flux and is changing continuously. Also, our view of history, our perception and judgement of temporal processes in the past, is changing with time. Therefore, Dr. Bernd von Droste-Hulshoff (UNESCO Paris) characterizes the main task of the cultural property protection with change management, dealing with these changes. Why does our view of history change over time? And how should we deal with these changes?

People always experience history in the context of their own time. There are different values, priorities in perspective. Objectivity can hardly be achieved, even if we are searching for the one and only truth. This creates a new again subjective picture of a certain era with each generation.

Detail of the Parthenon in Athens. Attempted reconstruction of Gottfried Semper (1836)

In art history, too, the perception of cultural eras is changing over time. That is why nowadays we are puzzled if we have to imagine the Greek temples polychrome. The „colorful gods“ fit little into our image of classic antiquities in their plain stone visiblity. For many decades, we knew the bare columns that have shaped our perception of this period. Even today, the Greek and Roman sculptures in their „noble simplicity and quiet grandeur“ (Winckelmann) are the epitome of the Ancient world and thus had been a direct model for the art and architecture of Classicism in the late 18th century. At that time this period of history was perceived in this simple form. Now we do know better: we know that many sculptures and monuments were lush colored, but to our modern perception of the simple beauty of this epoch this has done no harm. Maybe this will change at some point.

Source: Museums of Nuremberg

And only with a certain time interval elapsed, it is possible that we today consider buildings of National Socialist Germany as architecture and historical legacy without having the urgent need to destroy them as shameful Nazi buildings. The Nuremberg Nazi Rally Field is one example. Of course, we still are not able to approach such structures completely without any prejudice, but we can evaluate the architectural achievement more objectively, even if we are still disturbed by the megalomania of the Third Reich.

This changing of historical perceiption also influences the practical work of art historians. Therefore, we now conduct provenance research, for example, for works of art that have changed hands in the Nazi era, with so much more intensity than in previous decades. Already in the 1980s, there was was the offense of „Nazi-related deprivation“ on hand. Already in the 1960s, there has been victims. The cases are not new, their origins date back 70 years. For many years there has been little interest from the museums, the art market or politics to address this issue. Many protagonists of that time could continue after in 1945 the same way as before, many art dealers of the Nazi era were active in the art market again. Only now the cases are systematically rolled up because the awareness for this unjustice is awakened and we judge that time and the commited crimes differently than the generations before us.

But that’s what makes dealing with history so exciting. Who knows what we think about these works of art in 50 years? Who knows what we think about our own time in 50 years, which is then already history?


Panta rei – everything flows ….. I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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