How Nazi exhibitions engaged spectators

  • Date

    Wed 6 Jun 18

A new book by Essex art historian Dr Michael Tymkiw explores how exhibitions in Nazi Germany were designed to motivate audiences to become involved in social and political change.

Nazi exhibitions are largely known for their role in attacking modern art. What is less well known is that many shows – from exhibitions celebrating economic achievements to those promoting antisemitism – served as sites of formal experimentation for artists, architects and graphic designers to draw upon and reconfigure modernist ideas and practices.

In Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism, the most comprehensive book ever written on the subject, Dr Tymkiw argues that a central motivation behind this experimentation was an interest in provoking ‘engaged spectatorship’. 

This term describes the wide-ranging attempts to design exhibitions in ways that encouraged visitors to take part in different forms of social and political change: for example, by working harder as part of the Four Year Plan, or by supporting the escalation of anti-Semitic legislation and violence. 

Dr Tymkiw said: “My main reason for writing the book was to challenge the widespread misassumption that a tidy separation exists between exhibition-design strategies that empowered spectators (the motivation generally attributed to exhibition spaces conceived by the avant-garde) and approaches that subjugated audiences (the motivation usually ascribed to National Socialist shows). 

“I hope that the concept of ‘engaged spectatorship’ explored in this book will offer a path out of the binary distinction between ‘active‘ and ’passive‘ spectatorship that has often constrained discussions about exhibition design, particularly in relation to exhibitions on the far ends of the ideological spectrum.”

While Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism focuses on National Socialist exhibitions, Dr Tymkiw suggests that the concept of ’engaged spectatorship‘ may provide a useful starting point for considering overlaps and differences between strategies for audience engagement under National Socialism and those of the far right today – something he recently discussed in an article for The Conversation

Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernismis out now, published by the University of Minnesota Press.