Historical Exhibition: Kaiser is coming... again!

The always innovative Tower of David Museum uses some specially created out-of-the-box technology to present an original show.

Passing through the city gate. 521 (photo credit: Tower of David Museum)
Passing through the city gate. 521
(photo credit: Tower of David Museum)
Kaiser Wilhelm II was the last emperor of Germany and king of Prussia.
Crowned in 1888, he dismissed Chancellor Otto von Bismark two years later and ruled the German Empire until Germany’s defeat in World War I, when he abdicated and fled into permanent exile.
In the autumn of 1898, he announced his intention to journey to the Holy Land and visit Jerusalem. The declared reason for this grand state visit, in the company of his wife the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria and an enormous entourage, was his desire to dedicate the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, scheduled to open on October 31, the German holiday of Reformation Day. Undeclared, however, was his wish to bring German Lutheran Protestant Christianity to Jerusalem, strengthen the German presence in the Holy Land, and forge closer ties with the Ottoman Empire against England, France and Russia. Regardless of his motives, from the moment his desire to visit became known, the ancient Jerusalem of Gold was never to be the same.
As the small, sleepy walled city woke up one morning in 1898 to find itself the sudden focus of world attention, feverish preparations began. Six months before the kaiser’s planned arrival, his official host, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, dismissed Jerusalem’s governor and replaced him with an energetic young officer from his court. The new governor of Jerusalem ordered a massive cleanup of the city, oversaw the demolition of buildings near the Jaffa Gate and the renovation of others along Jaffa Road, tidied up the Temple Mount, and even cut several openings into the Dome of the Rock to let in more light.
The city’s water system was repaired after centuries of neglect, markets were rebuilt, and telegraph lines were laid to connect the kaiser with Berlin. Roads along the kaiser’s planned route of entry were paved, new buildings were constructed and old ones were whitewashed and painted. A wall near the Jaffa Gate was torn down and the adjacent moat was filled in to enable the passage of the horses and carriages of Wilhelm and his entourage.
Thomas Cook & Son, the world’s oldest travel agency – active in Jerusalem since the mid- 1860s – was commissioned by both the German and Ottoman imperial courts to manage the kaiser’s journey, organize his visit, and build a large, luxurious tent encampment for him and his large delegation. Laid out just outside the city walls where the ORT school stands today on Hanevi’im Street, the compound consisted of 75 residential tents, six lavishly furnished hospitality tents provided by the sultan, and six fully equipped kitchen tents along with several prefabricated buildings sent by boat from Germany and by train from Jaffa to Jerusalem.
All tents were comfortably appointed with furniture and carpets borrowed from wealthy Jerusalem families.
As a final touch, as the big day drew near, Jerusalem’s conscientious new governor had all of the city’s beggars and barking dogs rounded up and exiled to distant villages for the duration of the visit. At last, early on a warm Saturday afternoon, October 29, 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II, his wife and his entourage rode grandly into the city of Jerusalem, greeted by a phalanx of dignitaries, an army of journalists and photographers from all over the world, wildly cheering crowds, and a 21-gun salute.
And now, 114 years later, an unusually creative, cutting-edge museum located just inside the Jaffa Gate along the route the kaiser passed, has mounted an exhibition that not only commemorates the great visit but brings it to life once again, as though it was happening today.
Called “The Kaiser is Coming!,” this exhibition by the always innovative Tower of David Museum uses some specially created out-of-the-box technology to present a show unlike anything you have ever seen. While visitors to museums have long been accustomed to viewing more or less static exhibitions, moving through a gallery from painting to painting, photo to photo, or from one object to another, “The Kaiser is Coming!” gives us the unique experience of moving between exhibits that are moving themselves, right in front of our eyes.
The show is the brainchild of two proud parents, Renee Sivan, chief curator at Tower of David Museum; and Ruta Peled, curator of the exhibition. With refreshing candor, Sivan relates how the show came to be: “About two years ago, I had a dream. For me, the kaiser’s visit was the meeting of East and West. Suddenly in Jerusalem, a small city in the Orient, the kaiser is coming, with all the grandiosity of this event. And I dreamed of having an exhibition with umbrellas, tuxedos, and so on. Then I asked Ruta Peled, a wonderful researcher and curator, to set up an exhibit.
“But, I was very, very disappointed. Because three or four months after, she came up with practically nothing. Only newspapers, a lot of newspapers – hundreds! And a lot of pictures, and a few medals, and a few emblems, and some postcards.
That’s not an exhibit! An exhibit is a visual communication item, and not a book.
“So we switched and we decided that since we have so many pictures, and so many newspapers, let’s do the exhibit from another angle: how the press in those times reported the visit.
And then, we asked our designers to make new newspapers for us. And what we did here is an exhibit where there is no object – nothing! Everything is virtual. This is the first time for this. No one has done such an exhibit. It was a bit of chutzpah to do such a thing.”
THE EXHIBITION consists of four “active” newspapers as well as several interactive projected screens. The newspapers are virtual, displayed as though they were lying on a table, waiting for you to open them and turn the pages. They are, in fact, lying on actual wooden tables; and they are, in fact, blank. As you open the newspapers, the pages instantly fill with text and photographs.
Each page looks like a newspaper now looks online, with bright, clear text and vivid photographs that move and change while you are reading the stories.
And the stories are all from the past, but reported as though they were happening right now. Sivan draws our attention to some reproduced clippings of some 1898 newspaper accounts of the visit, especially two from The New York Times, written by a correspondent named Lydia Mamreov Mountford. Her articles were richly descriptive, painstakingly detailed, and very, very long. Says Sivan, “They used to write books in the newspapers.
The articles were enormous. Today, people aren’t ready to read so much. We want the news fast and concise. But the original New York Times report, for example, is an enormous report, a wonderful report, but a lot of words. So we have compressed it by making an interpretation of what was written in the newspapers.”
The result is a digest and analysis of the old news, presented as... well, new news – all appearing in the viewer’s choice of English, Hebrew or Arabic.
The large projected screens also produce newspaper- like accounts of the visit, but they are all interactive.
In front of each screen stands what appears to be a late 19th century-style box camera. Each of these “cameras” houses a touch screen, with which the viewer can zoom in and out of pictures, as well as touch icons which cause additional bits of information to appear on the projected screen.
The first of these screens shows us that preparations for the kaiser’s visit were by no means confined to Jerusalem. An enormous projected photograph of an ocean jetty informs us that the kaiser arrived in the Holy Land by way of Haifa. Touching an icon, we see on the screen that “A new jetty was by built by Gottlieb Schumacher, resident of Haifa, to allow the royal couple to move easily from the ship to the shore.” Moving through the exhibition, we watch the festive visit unfold in vividly projected changing pictures and concise punchy text. We see the kaiser moving through the Jewish Gate – one of three grand gates erected for the occasion – to be greeted by both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Jerusalem, in a large reception tent decorated with ornaments from the city’s synagogues.
We then see the procession move through the second grand gate, the City Gate, where the kaiser received homage from Jerusalem’s mayor. From there, it was on to the Grand Gate of the Sultan – brought from Istanbul and built where the General Post Office stands today. We witness the dedication of the Church of the Redeemer, and see the tent city where the kaiser and his entourage stayed. We touch screens, make images larger or smaller, move from one photograph to another, and get additional explanations and added detail.
There are some fascinating surprises as well. One area of the exhibition is entitled “The Kaiser and the Zionist Idea.” Says Peled, “We know that Theodor Herzl met the kaiser. He wanted to ask him to help him establish here a Jewish settlement. He met him in Istanbul. He wanted him to recommend the idea to the Sultan. The kaiser spoke to the sultan but as we now understand from Herzl’s diaries, he didn’t like the idea.”
Although polite and appropriately diplomatic to Herzl, the kaiser’s personal animosity toward Jews was well known at that time. An admirer of arch anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wilhelm II believed that the Jews in his empire were untrustworthy, disloyal and had undue influence.
After his exile in 1918, he was part of the large anti-Semitic chorus that blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the war.
“But Herzl was insistent. He went after the kaiser. He wanted to meet him in the Holy Land. He met him in Mikve Israel, on the way to Jerusalem,” Peled says. “We have here a very famous photograph of Herzl and the kaiser, but this is also an important part of our exhibition, to show how they made ‘Photoshop’ pictures in that period.”
Sure enough, a nearby wall sign with a cut-out Theodor Herzl that the viewer can move around by hand explains that the famous photograph of Herzl talking to the kaiser mounted on a horse was a bit of trick photography.
“Herzl’s encounter with the kaiser was a landmark event for the Zionist delegation. The members were determined to capture and publicize the moment.
And David Wolffsohn was assigned the task. In the excitement, however, the photographer missed the dramatic moment of the meeting and only Herzl’s foot appeared in the picture. Wolffsohn solved the problem by restaging the encounter. He photographed Herzl separately and grafted his picture into the original, alongside the kaiser. To achieve this, he was obliged to move the kaiser from his white horse onto a black one that stood behind him, and a new situation was created.” Photoshop, in 1898.
As if this was not enough, the exhibition also provides the visitor with the opportunity to sit in a reproduction of the kaiser’s personal hospitality tent and have himself photographed either alone or with a virtual Kaiserin Augusta Victoria or Theodor Herzl.
He can then immediately upload the photo on to Facebook, or send it directly to friends by email. The exhibition concludes with a television news report of the kaiser’s visit, starring Channel 10 news presenter Guy Zohar.
INGENIOUSLY, THE Tower of David Museum has also established a Facebook account for Kaiser Wilhelm II, where he posts photos and impressions of his journey to the Holy Land. His status updates detail all of the hardships and discomforts of his visit, along with some amusing anecdotes. The content of these posts comes from the kaiser’s actual diary, with photographs from the exhibition. Coordinated with the exhibition are meetings at the museum, a series of lectures, as well as guided tours of the Old City, focusing on sites that display the legacy of the kaiser’s visit to Jerusalem.
“The Kaiser is Coming!” is a small but important exhibition – not only for what the show presents but because of the way it is presented. We are probably seeing the museum exhibition of the future, premiered here and now.
“We had an initial vision of how this exhibition was going to be, with objects, like having the carriage put in the middle of the hall. And then we changed it. We restarted it. I think it was almost two years that we worked on it,” says Peled.
Sivan adds, “Most of the things that we are showing, the way that we are showing things, are applications that were made specifically for this. It didn’t exist. It’s a new thing. All the technology is completely new, done specifically for this exhibition. This is groundbreaking. In an exhibition like this, there are many people involved. We are the curators. We dealt with the general idea and with all the content, and we supplied all the visuals. We dealt with designers that accommodated our ideas and proposed to us, following our ideas, to have these active newspapers, with this technology.
“There are also animators who invented things specifically for this show. They are in charge of all the applications and the animation. There are also graphic designers, and people who made the constructions. It was all a lot of work, believe me.” •
“The Kaiser is Coming!” is on until the end of March at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. For further information, visit www.towerofdavid.org.il