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Self-awareness and persistence

6. December 2004 – 5. March 2005

On December 6, 2004 the Schwules Museum opened its new, permanent exhibition. The display occupies the entire first floor, long-term rental of which has been secured with the generous bequest of Prof. Dr. Christian Adolf Isermeyer. Preparations and actual installation were realized with the financial support of the Stiftung Deutsche Klassenlotterie Berlin. Now, after years of regularly changing displays, we can also present a permanently installed overview of gay history in Germany, with a special focus on Berlin.

Nineteen years ago the museum first opened its doors. A permanent exhibition was envisioned from the start and thus research was carried on throughout and a vast collection built up. Our new display covers nearly two centuries of social change with many highs and lows between 1800 and 1970. The historic foundations of contemporary gay pride and self-understanding will be revealed by tracing the gradual process of European Enlightenment that enabled minorities or those who thought and acted differently, to define their own lives.

The narrative perspective is that of homosexuals themselves. Various possibilities of shaping of one’s own life are explored in the face of ongoing oppression, persecution and punishment. Instances of self-awareness and perseverance are highlighted. Without these qualities it would have been impossible to fulfill ideals and desires. Without them it would not have been possible  to resist social pressure and find a partner or likeminded friends, to create circles and networks. How did such self-confidence come about, what kind of support was needed? This is the central question which the exhibition addresses in different contexts. The love stories among the gods and heroes of Antiquity, which especially since the Renaissance were omnipresent in Europe, challenged producers of art and literature to find new forms of expression over and over again. Episodes from the Bible, such as the account of David and Jonathan or Jesus and his favorite disciple John, could be read as examples of close friendship and even love among men. Oral traditions and academic research led to listings of famous homosexuals who inspired individuals to shape their own love life and served as a life aid for private happiness despite public scorn.

Erotic desire and the longing for male nudity found fulfillment through all kinds of impulses. Reproductions of such images held in art collections and museums might be installed at home. From the early 19th century onwards there was a wide range of public displays with sparsely dressed or nude males who, initially modeling themselves on ancient times, engaged in swimming and other sports; increasingly, acrobats and other strongmen performed on the stage. This is a theme of its own and examples will be shown for different epochs. Earlier myths of a gay paradise stemmed from depictions of an alleged ideal world during Antiquity; from 1840 on, after discovering the blue grotto, the Isle of Capri was a centre of gay men’s attraction. The exhibition includes Ferdinand Flor’s painting of bathers in this very setting, as well as early photographs by Wilhelm von Gloeden. Around 1900 a rather liberal cult around nudity arose in Germany, which eventually also contributed to the fact that in the Weimar Republic era Berlin became a new ‘isle of the fortunate’. In the 1950s and 60s the Californian beaches with their musclemen represented the next mythical wave of ‘paradise regayned’.

Private identity searches were often carried on with the help of novels and poems, the precondition being a selective and imaginative reading mode. Academic works, even legal and medical documents have served as a support  for individual action. Publications such as Psychopathia sexualis by Krafft-Ebing (1886) or by predecessors like Ludwig Casper and Karl Westphal in Berlin could, regardless of prejudiced views and negative case studies, be seen in a positive light. Individual self-awareness and sheer perseverance were always a precondition for the establishment of gay friendship circles, networks and subcultures which can be traced back to 1700 in many European cities. In Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, Naples, Vienna and Berlin such circles had their own meeting spots, private entertainment, fashion styles and jargon. Despite ongoing oppression throughout the 19th century, an extensive gay subculture was able to establish itself in Berlin.

The transformation from individual networks into politically motivated organisations took about 50 years, as shown by the example of men like Heinrich Hössli and Karl Heinrich Ulrich through to the foundation of the Scientific-humanitarian Committee by the Berlin physician, Magnus Hirschfeld in 1897. It ws the starting point for a veritable campaign of public consciousness-raising with essays, books and legal proposals. They were particularly aimed at the organs of oppression that had been operating over hundreds of years, the police, politics, parliament, the law, churches, the medical and legal professions, writers and so on. By 1900 the search for coalition partners at all social levels was showing fruit. Our display pays due attention to the zenith of this development, represented by Berlin in the 1920s. In the years of the Weimar Republic gay men and women ran so-called Friendship associations with a membership of up to 40.000. Biographical and documentary exhibits on groups and individuals clearly show how the challenge of defining one’s own life while simultaneously partaking in contemporary culture and politics was successfully taken on.

With his Institute of Sexual Science, set up in 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld fought not only for the equality of homosexuals but also for all-round sexual education, including birth control. Peter Martin Lampel exposed malconditions in reform schools. His interviews with youths from boys’ homes led to a series of  books, theatre plays and films that actually brought about some change. Gallery owners such as Alfred Flechtheim and Fritz Gurlitt confronted censorship and prudery by publishing erotic art series with gay and lesbian themes. Max Terpis, Harald Kreutzberg and Anita Berber made significant contributions to the development of modern dance. Through the cabaret performances of Wilhelm Bendow and Hans Deppe drag and camp gained further social acceptance, the ground for which was prepared by female impersonators who had been entertaining the masses in variety shows since the 1890s. Lesbian women and gay men were visible and audible at many social levels, be it in youth associations or the teachers reform movement, in literature, film and theatre. During this period the main aims of European Enlightenment seemed to be realized in Berlin, not only for gays and lesbians. However, 1933 brought the turning point that led to the full catastropy, a development which had of course manifested itself earlier with other reactionary forces and coalitions.

The thorough destruction of lesbian and gay organisations and activities resulted in the renewed isolation of homosexuals. The contempt fostered by the Nazis for each and everyone who thought or acted differently, deployed traditional prejudices found within society itself, the churches and the medical profession, and soon posed a real threat to homosexual lives. The terror incited by the state graduated from tightening the laws on male homosexuality to increasing jail sentences, from there to so-called protective custody in penitentiaries and concentration camps. Between 1940 and 1942 explicit murder campaigns were staged particularly in the quarries of Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Natzweiler. Each step being aimed at annihilating individual and collective self-esteem, the summary effect lasted way beyond the year 1945. Nevertheless, there have been examples to the contrary even during the Nazi era. Our display includes stories of gay pride and perseverance, of opposition and conformity, of solidarity and individual courage both in Germany and in exile.

The destructive force of Nazi rule lingered on through the early years of the German federal republic, as shown by the rather timid attempts to regain previously known areas of freedom. In the 1950s, during the reactionary Adenauer era which was dominated by fundamental christian ethics, these attempts were repeatedly suppressed. Only in the 1960s with a new generation setting out to change the world as they knew it, Germany too underwent significant changes comparable to earlier reform impulses around the turn of the century. The so-called flower power movement included gays and lesbians and led to a new self-confidence. From 1970 onwards a fighting spirit developed which to this day effects a wide spread of lesbian, gay and trans-gender lifestyles.

The permanent exhibition has been designed as an “open system” with many aspects and angles. Together with exhibition architect Rainer Lendl a structure was developed that allows for regular changes and additions. Exhibits and display groupings are purposely arranged so as to avoid the impression that this is the final or solely valid view on historical developments. Within each thematic set it will, rather, remain clear that the objects are merely remnants and more or less haphazard findings. They represent the unearthing of a multi-layered history, the overall arrangement being modeled on constructivist paintings. Delicate original works on paper, highly sensitive to light, are to be exchanged every six months. Visitors will thus be able to discover new insights and impulses. The larger walls are reserved for works of art from several epochs. Our vast collection ensures that these, too, can be exchanged at regular intervals. Apart from updating the presentation, it is thus possible to shift the emphasis and shed yet another light on specific moments within the history of homosexuality. Smaller displays addressing a special issue can also easily be incorporated in the permanent exhibition. The period between 1900 and 1970 includes several personal biographies, a mainstay of the work done at the Schwules Museum. Here again, material from the museum’s own collection can be exchanged to provide further details to the overall view.

Curator: Andreas Sternweiler