Prototype Proposal for Public Art in the Former GDR Region: The Spectacle and Specter of Socialist Realism

This digital public history project will explore and explain public art in the former region of East Germany, also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Most monuments of Soviet and GDR leaders were destroyed after the regime fell in 1989. However, that does not mean that public art that demonstrates the history and cultural values of the GDR no longer exists. On the contrary, it endures in murals, mosaics, street art, fountains, graphic art, decorative architectural elements, and monuments to individuals who were not directly responsible for the oppression of the GDR’s residents.

Unfortunately, this region’s current population and tourists take its public art for granted or do not understand its significance. According to the Wüstenrot Foundation, as of 2019, only approximately 60% of East Germany’s public works of art have survived, and most need restoration and preservation. This project seeks to document public artworks in the former GDR region to understand the reasons behind their creation, the artists who made them, and their legacy today. This project will draw on recent English-language scholarship on public art in the GDR. In addition, it will build on the efforts of photographers and bloggers working in Germany, who often focus on a particular city or medium, to provide a comprehensive view of public art in former East Germany and the history and culture embedded within it. Finally, this project will highlight public art in the region made after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification and clarify how it references, compares to, or contrasts with the socialist realism of GDR public art.

This project will be built as a digital exhibit using Omeka and the plugins available for the platform. It will feature digital galleries of art across mediums, artists’ biographies, historical and art historical contexts for public art by states and decades, a map, oral histories, related media, a bibliography and links to related projects and additional resources. This project has a participatory element. Users will be valuable sources of images and stories about public art in former East Germany. The exhibition website will include a form that visitors can use to upload their photos of public art in batches and provide details about when and where they took their photos. There will also be a form for users to submit memories, anecdotes, local lore and feelings about public art in former East German cities and towns. The site will offer content geared toward audience participation in English and German to encourage users with limited English. Since variations often exist in translated English titles, artworks will be listed by their German titles for accuracy with an English translation in the description.

The target audience for this project is people born between 1944 and 1984 who have lived in or visited former East Germany. Within these target audiences are three specific groups. The first group is former citizens of the GDR. In a combination of Ostalgie and objectivity, this group started to think differently about their experiences growing up in East Germany. They would like to express these thoughts and feelings. This group wants to share stories and knowledge but expects their memories and history to be represented authentically. The second group comprises expatriates and immigrants living in the former East German states. This group is curious about their new surroundings. Although they did not live through the GDR regime, their community ties and civic pride give them a unique perspective, making them more like insiders than outsiders. They take lots of pictures for documentary purposes. Most bloggers who focus on public art from the GDR fall into this group. Finally, the third group consists of middle-class tourists to the region from English-speaking countries. They want to learn more about what they saw on vacation. There is limited information in English about public art in Germany, and they may not know the right questions to ask the locals. This group will eagerly upload photos and read content, but they probably do not know Dresden from Nuremberg.

Funding for this project would pay for the rights to high-resolution professional photos of public art, travel to Germany to take additional pictures and conduct interviews, the translation of didactic texts into German, and bilingual marketing. Possible partners include the Roy Rosenzweig Center, the Wende Museum, the DDR Museum, the Goethe Institut, Arizona State University, LOOKS Film, and the state governments of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Berlin, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, and Thüringen.

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