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Forgetting - Why We Don't Remember Everything

7 March to 14 July 2019
Special Exhibition


Forgetting. We’re all familiar with it; we all do it. It’s normal to forget. Sometimes we find it bothersome, sometimes helpful and consoling, sometimes problematic. How can it be described? In a special exhibition, the Historisches Museum Frankfurt is taking a closer look at forgetting – and thus also thinking about itself, because museums aren’t just for remembering.

Why do we forget? Wouldn’t it be more effective, nicer or better to remember everything, for example our own life stories? Our autobiographical memory is choosy; we don’t remember everything that happens in our lives. Our self-image filters what we remember – and forgets the experiences that don’t jibe with it. We tend to forget shameful, painful and humiliating things more than we do happy, cheerful and flattering ones.

The manifold dimensions of forgetting can only be understood from an interdisciplinary perspective. The exhibition therefore intermeshes insights from the social sciences, cultural history, the neurosciences, psychoanalysis and art.

“Digital amnesia” is a term for the increasing “external storage” of information. Twenty years ago, we all still knew telephone numbers by heart. Today our smartphones dial the numbers for us. But do we really forget more than earlier generations? Probably not, but the processes of forgetting and remembering change as technology progresses. Nowadays we capture countless moments of our lives on camera. But do we really remember more as a result, or does the flood of photos makes us forget more than we used to?

Scientists explored forgetting and how it functions back in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century instruments and models on display in the show span the period from the beginnings of research on the subject of forgetting to present-day investigations in the fields of psychology and the neurosciences.

Is my forgetfulness still normal? Am I still healthy or already sick? These are questions and fears that preoccupy us increasingly as we get older. The exhibition takes a look at how we as a society can cope with people who suffer from dementia without losing sight of their personalities, even if the illness changes them greatly.

In a section on post-war Germany’s collective amnesia with regard to the Holocaust, the show also presents another aspect of forgetting “too much”. Many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents never talked about the Holocaust or about their own role in the Third Reich. The objects on view testify to strategies of defence against guilt, but also to the resistance against the silence, which ultimately led to the refounding of the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt.

How do people cope with the inability to forget? To help a person survive after an extremely traumatic experience, the psyche creates a fragile balance by splitting the memory of the threat to the person’s life off from the rest of his or her personality. It makes a fragment of the traumatic experience and buries it. That is a “healthy” reaction to a “sick”, life-destroying environment. Various displays in the exhibition explain and demonstrate these psychological reactions that are essential for survival if a person has to live with something that is impossible to live with.

The final section of the show asks whether forgetting can be overcome and what we actually preserve in collections. Do monuments still remind us of that to which they were erected? In this context, the museum reflects on its function as a place where Frankfurt history is constructed and presented.

Contemporary artworks also play a key role in the exhibition. Here they are not mere illustrations of cultural or life-science theories, however, but independent explorations of the dynamics of forgetting and remembering.

Participating artists:

Kader Attia, Christian Boltanski, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Daniela Comani, Tacita Dean, Mark Dion, Sam Durant, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Robert Filliou, Jochen Gerz, Martin Honert, Ilya Kabakov, Christina Kubisch, Boris Lurie, Arwed Messmer, Jana Müller, Adrian Paci, Regis Perray, Maya Schweizer, Tino Sehgal, Sigrid Sigurdsson

Sponsored by:

German Federal Cultural Foundation
Dr. Marschner-Stiftung
Ernst Max von Grunelius-Stiftung
Friends and supporters of the Historisches Museum Frankfurt

Cooperation partners:

Bürgerinstitut e.V., Frankfurt a.M.
Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt a. M.
Neurologisches Institut (Edinger-Institut), Frankfurt a.M.
Schauspiel Frankfurt
Sigmund Freud-Institut, Frankfurt am Main
Frankfurt a. M.


Jan Gerchow

HMF exhibition office:

Curators: Jasmin Alley and Kurt Wettengl
Contact: jasmin.alley[at]stadt-frankfurt.de / kurt.wettengl[at]stadt-frankfurt.de

Project director: Jasmin Alley
Project assistant: Lisa Voigt
Contact: lisa.voigt[at]stadt-frankfurt.de

Press and public relations: David Barth
Contact: david.barth[at]stadt-frankfurt.de