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Things We Keep

Presented at the German Historical Institute London, Holborn.
10 September - 5 November 2015

What do a jam pot, a fountain pen, a watercolour painting, a house number plate and a teddy bear have in common?

This autumn the German Historical Institute will be showing “Things We Keep: Curators of our own history”, an exhibition of objects that German immigrants brought to Britain. Curated by researchers from King’s College London and the German Historical Institute and designed by artist Rolf Sachs, the project explores the narratives behind things and why we keep what we keep when we move. The exhibition will be on display during the 25th anniversary of German re-unification on 3 October 2015 and document materially the ‘new’ Germany, bringing together East and West.

Expatriates face difficult decisions about what to take when moving abroad, a selection process that heightens the significance of the objects they decide to keep. However, most people can put their finger on a few things they would never want to leave behind. In short, we all have our desert island objects that remind us who we are by making us remember who we were.

Sidestepping economic and cultural value, this material culture approach is interested in the emotional dimension of the materiality of everyday life. Some of these things have a practical value, though all of them have over time acquired a personal and emotional meaning to the German expats. The things can be objects of nostalgia, are connections to the past, or narrative pegs for identities on the move, and yet they become an inherent part of a new life in Britain.

On show will be 10 selected objects whose stories are explored through oral history interviews. The interviews are also on display on the project website where more objects and their stories can be found.

The exhibition opens with a launch event on 9 September 2015 and runs from 10 September to 5 November, Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm at the German Historical Institute, 17 Bloomsbury Square, WC1A 2NJ London. The GHI will also be open on Open House London, 19 September from 10am to 2pm.

The German Historical Institute London (GHIL) promotes independent research on British history, the history of the Empire and Commonwealth, and Anglo-German relations. It facilitates communication between German and British historians through its publications, research grants and its programme of conferences, workshops and public lectures. Its public library specialises in German history. The institute is part of the Max Weber Foundation — German Humanities Institutes Abroad.

The Cultural Institute at King’s College London connects the university with practitioners, producers, policy makers and participants across arts and culture, creating space where conventions are challenged and original perspectives emerge. Through its programmes and activities, the Cultural Institute aims to put academic research to work in the cultural sector, enhance the student experience, inspire new approaches to teaching, research and learning and increase public engagement with the work of King’s. The Cultural Institute is a flagship initiative for Culture at King’s. @CultInstKings

Things We Keep: Curators of our own history is a Culture at King’s College London project in collaboration with the Department of European & International Studies, the German Historical Institute and artist Rolf Sachs. It has been curated by Dr Katrin Schreiter, Teaching Fellow in German and European Studies at King’s College London, Dr Tobias Becker, Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute and Julia Alcamo, undergraduate research fellow at King’s College London. To find out more about the project go to or follow us on Twitter (@thingswekeep).

Tobias Becker
German Historical Institute London

Katrin Schreiter
King’s College London