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“Our talks in the museum made hatred disappear. Cultural experiences can make difference."

The Albertinum art museum in Dresden has arranged a series of public talks on themes like nationalism and extremism. The meetings have received attention in The Guardian, for instance. Fikaproject has made a follow-up interview.

The Albertinum museum director Hilke Wagner is worried:

“The extreme polarization scares us all, not just in Dresden. The debate is increasingly hysterical and emotional. It’s a phenomenon we see in society as a whole. It is worrying in many ways”, she says.

Can art, culture and museums counteract polarization?

“Maybe partially. There are situations where art can stimulate dialogue and make a difference. But it is the people who take part in and engage in the art, not the art itself.”

“We have tried by arranging events with people who have criticized me and the museum.

At first it was difficult. Much anger emerged about things that hasn't been talked about in 30 years.”

How did you organize these meetings?

“The question was, how can we start a real conversation with your audience. Certainly not with a podium discussion over people's heads. We really wanted to talk to people.”

“The main advice we got was that the discussion must be at ground level. And that the themes must come from the audience. So, no predetermined agenda. Instead themes that touches people and what they wanted to talk about.”

“The third important thing was to try to reduce contradictions. To build a round seating so that everyone sees each other's faces and bodies. Not teams on opposite sides.”

“The fourth was to have a really good moderator, who could explain the rules of the game in a very clear way including what applies to courtesy and respect. A moderator who has his or her own experiences to share and who has some humor.”

Who took part in the talks?

“It is a great advantage here in East Germany that you can reach people across the community. People from different generations, different attitudes and different strata of society came.

We got all these perspectives and could learn from each other. The diversity was good for the dialogue”.

How many took part?

“It was different. The first meetings were large. About 600 people. At one time there were 50 people. At other times 100, 200 or 300. It depended on the theme.”

How did you talk about nationalism and extremism?

“Then we invited an artist, Mario Pfiefer ("Blacktivist"), who had made a video installation about the Saxon situation where right-wing people talk about their frustrations and fears.

The artist and protagonists were invited. For example, representatives from Pegida (patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) and the Minister of Integration.”

“It was an interesting dialogue. The debate was intense. But I believe the problems between these people decreased.”

Did they understand each other?

“…it was clear that common denominators could not be found at all points. But these talks are about talking to each other at all. And to listen to each other. First of all, it is about removing the hatred from this discussion.”

“It is important to me that people are not isolated from one another. We need to try to get people back to the center, so to speak. This can be done in dialogue and by clearing up misunderstandings. To actually deal with it. You can only do it eye to eye. That´s simply my experience.”

“Therefore, it was important for me to call this a ‘relationship crisis’. We must meet each other interpersonally and not offend each other. Look each other in the eye and discuss constructively. Then, and that´s the good experience, the hatred disappears.”

A success?

“Yes, so far it is a great success. And that's a reason for us to keep talking with people. To open up with the help of contemporary art and other themes.

It worked well and I noticed that when we opened ourselves and listened, people were ready to open up.”

So, a museum like Albertinum can help reduce the polarization of society?

“Yes, we have a good opportunity anyway. So far, we are one of the few places where this happens. But there are a lot of places where it could work. It is both a challenge and a great opportunity.

Culture and art should not be a mausoleum, things should happen here that affect people.”

There are those who say that talking to nationalists and extremists is a way to normalize them?

“We have to do with strong rightist attitudes. These are difficult situations that we must learn how to handle. We must, of course, be careful not to contribute to normalization of the extreme. It’s important to maintain our democratic position consistently. We have been doing that in our meetings.”

From the streets of Dresden at the 200th Pegida demonstration 2020:

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