St. Nikolai Church

Conceptualising exhibitions does not only include dealing with the fine arts, but sometimes also with terrible and bloody events and epochs that shock those involved with presenting them. At the same time this work is enormously important.


The exhibition in the ruins of Hamburg’s former main church St. Nikolai was an example of this. It addressed “Operation Gomorrha“, the British bombing campaign of Hamburg in July 1943 which destroyed large portions of the city. The devastating firestorm it triggered it took the lives of 34,000 people.
krafthaus, the workshop belonging to facts and fiction, was responsible for the conceptual design, research and the implementation of the exhibition which was subdivided into four parts.
The first part was dedicated to the history of the church. The display of documents and artefacts helped to explain its development. The second part described the history preceding the events and the public’s preparation for the bombing raids. This was shown from different perspectives: that of the allied forces, the general public and also the discriminated, persecuted and deported citizens – narrated through various media.
The third and central part of the exhibition focused on the events of July 1943 and their importance for the public. Fragmented-looking vitrines showed the different phases prior to, during and after the bombardment.
A media table enabled visitors to look at the events in detail. Specially produced animations explained the physical conditions of the firestorm, and ten contemporary witness reports were available for listening. The shocking figures regarding “Operation Gomorrha“ were also revealed: 9,000 tons of bombs were dropped; the temperature in the firestorm was estimated to have been 760° C; a smoke column rose 6,000 metres into the sky above the city; 1.2 million people fled Hamburg during and after the attacks. And many more terrible facts.
The fourth and final part of the exhibition addressed the often-ambivalent memories towards the events. Personal fates were recalled from memory with the help of everyday objects. The exhibition ended with artists’ reactions to the events. A reading corner invited visitors to work out which of the memories of this dreadful catastrophe was closest to the truth.
St. Nikolai marks another step in Germany’s long journey to coping with its fascist past. It is the first museum commemorating the country’s civil victims of the allied bombing raids in the Second World War. For a long time this topic was taboo due to the monstrous atrocities committed by the Germans during this war.
It was therefore crucial to approach this topic sensitively and to avoid a false tone; a leading British historian in our team helped to ensured this. The exhibition was not revisionist in any way and did not seek to apportion blame for war crimes – German attacks on Allied cities were also a subject of the exhibition and the holocaust did not fade from view.
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