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On a train with … Tomoko Emmerling Interview with the project manager of the exhibition series “Here I Stand”

Dr. Tomoko Emmerling
Dr. Tomoko Emmerling during the presentation on the exhibition preparations at the “Jour fixe with Martin Luther” (Foto: Frank Nürnberger / © Staatliche Geschäftsstelle „Luther 2017“)

In October 2016 the “Here I Stand” series of exhibitions opens in the USA. Three sites offer the American public the opportunity to delve into the time of the Reformation and discover Martin Luther’s life and work. The exhibition series also invites visitors to take a trip to the places and collections in Luther’s home country as well as the National Special Exhibitions and events taking place in Germany in 2017 to mark the anniversary of the Reformation. The project is supported by the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (lead role), the Luther Memorials Foundation in Saxony-Anhalt, the German Historical Museum (Berlin) and the Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha via the Federal Foreign Office, with some 30 institutions lending exhibits.

We accompanied project manager Tomoko Emmerling of the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle on her way to the town on the river Saale. We spoke with the curator about Protestant roots in the USA, Luther’s portable pulpit and the pilot project #HereIstand. How important is the reformer Martin Luther in den USA? 

Tomoko Emmerling: The USA is a country that is strongly influenced by Protestant traditions, both Lutheran and those of other Protestant religious communities, many of which consider Martin Luther one of their founding fathers. One thing we can see is that Luther’s significance varies across different regions. In this context we are of course very pleased to be able to hold one of our exhibitions in the Midwest, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The Midwest has been strongly shaped by a population around 70% of whom have roots in Western Europe, especially in Germany and Scandinavia. The region has the largest concentration of Lutherans in the USA. As project manager of the exhibition series “Here I Stand”, which opens in the USA in October 2016, you are responsible for the exhibitions’ organisation and conception. What are the series’ specific aims?

Tomoko Emmerling: One of our aims is of course to share knowledge about the reformer Martin Luther, the Reformation and its impact. Another is to highlight the cultural historical context of the Reformation. All three of our exhibitions have a different focus: in New York, at the Morgan Library & Museum, the aim is to shed light on the events in the life of Martin Luther that were of particular importance for the early Reformation. In Minneapolis we have a comprehensive portrayal of the Reformation, narrated through the life of Martin Luther, and the cultural historical context of the Reformation. In Atlanta, at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University, the core of Luther’s theology is explained via the painting “Law and Mercy” by Lucas Cranach. At the same time the idea is also to show the ties between the USA and Germany and how Martin Luther’s legacy continues to this day. Apart from conveying from this content we also wish to draw attention to the anniversary of the Reformation – in the museum sector, the National Special Exhibitions are playing a major role in this respect. On the other hand it is of course also important to draw attention to the land of the Reformation and the cultural treasures Germany has to offer. Against this background I am delighted that so many institutions are also supporting the project with loan exhibits. Currently a number of precious loans are being sent by museums in Central Germany for “Here I Stand” –including even the pulpit Martin Luther used for his sermons. Which particular highlights can exhibition visitors look forward to?

Tomoko Emmerling: That’s a difficult question, since there are indeed many highlights. It is certainly unusual that so many objects from the sites of the Reformation are making their first journey abroad. And the combination in which these objects can be seen is unique.

In New York we are showing something that simply must be exhibited there – a letter from Martin Luther to Emperor Charles V dated 28 April 1521. This handwritten letter was written by the reformer himself after his famous performance at the imperial diet of Worms and reiterates his motives. As a note tells us however, it was never handed to the emperor. The letter surfaced at an auction in Leipzig in 1911, where it was bought by an American financier and collector, one John P. Morgan, who for some time had been on friendly terms with the German emperor. A dealer was able to auction the letter for over 100,000 Reichsmarks – an enormous sum for the time. After acquiring the letter, J.P. Morgan presented it to the German emperor as a gift. Emperor Wilhelm II then gave the letter the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg, then still known as the “Luther Hall”, where it remains one of the highlights of its permanent exhibition to this day. For the exhibition series “Here I Stand” the letter will be displayed for the first time within the halls of the benefactor, in the Morgan Library.

The letter is, incidentally, an outstanding exhibit that due to its historical significance has been elected part of the UNESCO documentary heritage Memory of the World. But it is also a nice story linking Germany and the USA. There will be further paper highlights in the collection, for instance the Edict of Worms, which is leaving the Deutsches Historisches Museum for New York, or archaeological finds, such as seven items of moveable music type from a former Franciscan monastery in Wittenberg.

Minneapolis, the largest of the three exhibitions, ranges from archaeological finds to literature, from Cranach paintings and monumental works of art to liturgical robes. There will also be objects bringing to life the immediate living conditions of the reformer, for instance Luther’s writing set from Wittenberg, which it can be assumed must have been in the hands of the reformer. Another highlight is “Luther’s habit” from the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg, the Gotha panel altar, a monumental work with 160 painted panels resembling a giant picture bible illustrating what the word meant for Luther.

On loan from Berlin, a parade helmet belonging to Emperor Charles V, one of the protagonists of the age and the most important opponent of Luther and the Reformation, gives visitors an immediate feel of the time. In Atlanta the focus is on the key statements of Martin Luther’s reform, man’s salvation by the grace of God alone. The picture Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Younger will form the centrepiece of the Atlanta exhibition.  There is so much more I could mention. People will see that the Reformation era had many faces, including in terms of material culture. The website, which will present the digital exhibition “#HereIstand. Martin Luther, die Reformation und die Folgen”, has been online since last week. How difficult is it for a museum curator with exhibitions increasingly moving to the internet?

Tomoko Emmerling: I wouldn’t say it was difficult. Of course, it’s a new area, for us museum people too. We were always used to dealing with original objects, moving them around and seeing how we can display an item while allowing it to speak to the visitor without a great deal of text. This digital exhibition project is a challenge for us, but as a pilot project it holds a certain excitement for us, since it opens up other opportunities to disseminate knowledge about Martin Luther and the Reformation.

The online exhibition will display and communicate knowledge in contemporary fashion. One special aspect is the scanned 3D prints that can be downloaded and printed using the appropriate printer – something that has never existed in this form. It is fascinating even for us to see what is possible with this technology. These objects can also be viewed from all sides. You can turn them, zoom in, and in the case of archaeological finds you can even see which fragments they consist of – something that is not possible for a visitor to a normal exhibition at a museum. It is this opportunity to connect knowledge and its communication in so many different ways that we are very excited about.