Dreaming of a white goods Christmas

The biggest news in Nuremberg this week, apart from weather forecasts suggesting the southern German city famous for its Christmas market has a good chance of snow on December 24, arrived at precisely the wrong time for Matthias Murko, director of the local industrial culture museum.

The announcement that the AEG household appliances factory in Nuremberg would close in 2007, threatening 1,750 jobs, came as he was dismantling the museum’s 2000-item collection of AEG washing machines, irons and vacuum cleaners to make way for a temporary exhibition.

Now Mr Murko wonders whether, in the interests of white goods historians, he ought to keep more than the planned two-dozen or so appliances on show in the former screw factory that houses the museum. It is all an “unfortunate coincidence”, he complains.

Preserving industrial heritage is not unique to Germany. But the potential for finding new artefacts to archive is arguably greatest in Europe’s largest economy. German industry has been put through a spin cycle in recent years: cost-cutting and restructuring have restored its international competitiveness and the country’s position as Exportweltmeister, but washed thousands out of employment.

The Ruhrgebiet, Germany’s northern industrial heartland, woos tourists with a heritage trail that takes in coal pits, coking plants and the Oberhausen gasometer. The big car manufacturers compete to provide the most lavish museums for old-timers. Visit even small town museums and you can find proud displays of local manufacturing expertise.

Part of the explanation is the cathartic effect – call it Industrielle Vergangenheits-bewältigung (coming to terms with the industrial past). The decision by the AEG plant’s owners, Sweden’s Electrolux, to close the factory in Nuremberg has made Mr Murko more determined that his museum’s collection should have more impact when it returns in its full glory next year. AEG appliances have been made in the city since the 1920s.

“I want the museum to illustrate thematically the structural change that is taking place in Nuremberg,” he says. “Looking back can be helpful in adjusting to the process of globalisation. Industrialisation also involved great upheaval.” Placing items in a museum helps people accept that there is no future in a business. It is a way of hanging on to a heritage, while letting companies get on with the business of making money. But as Mr Murko adds: “It doesn’t help those who are about to lose their jobs at AEG.”

Nor is it easy turning industrial goods into tourist attractions. The 150-strong collection of vintage motorbikes at Nuremberg’s industrial culture museum attracts aficionados from across Germany. But the museum had to work hard to make its AEG collection exciting, using lighting effects and the taped voices of actors to make the machines perform before visitors. Alas, not many come to see washing machines for their own sake.

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