The #MartCult research team went to visit the temporary exhibition Faszination Schwert swords at the Landesmuseum Württemberg. This ambitious exhibition (3500 objects on 1000m2) takes place in the Altes Schloss, the re-built princely residence of the dukes of Baden-Württemberg. The aim of the exhibition is to display sword culture in Europe from 17th c. BC up until the Future, from the Bronze Age to the fictive world of Star Wars. The exhibition relies on the important collections of the Landesmuseum of antique and Celtic swords on the one hand, the remains of the once highly praised armoury of the counts (later dukes) of Württemberg. A small number of medieval pieces complement these two focuses of the presentation. Nonetheless the curators of the exhibition managed to please even medievalists and to provoke relevant reflections, which go beyond classical historical periodisation. Moreover, the exhibition’s discourses and installations are well structured and displayed in innovative ways through the different spaces, with a convincing scenography. It includes interactive installations, as well as audio-visual material, without casting shadow on the impressive number of significant objects.
The first space concentrates on sword manufacture and includes a video of an archaeological experiment for casting a bronze sword. It also sports didactic displays about sword components and tools used for its production. Among the different displays, my favourite was the one about the ulfberht swords with a map showing their origins and the distribution of both “originals” and counterfeits with increasingly varied names.
The second space is about typology, with a clever installation allowing to understand the main sword types appearing through history with representative examples in individual cases, associated with iconographical representations. It includes the now must-have installation allowing the visitor to grab a sword replica (and guess at its weight) and a video about Historical European Martial Arts practitioners demonstrating late Medieval art of fighting (featuring the Gladiatores).
The third space is about the warriors and their swords. In the centre, one of the masterpieces of the exhibition is on display, the sword of duke Eberhard im Bart, with its beautifully decorated scabbard (achieved in 1495). The room also includes the oldest known representation of sword fighters or dancers (Hochdorf, 6th c. BC). Next to the display about chivalric orders, you can take your picture while being knighted by your friends – in the way the English Queen has been doing for more than six decades.
The fourth space is about devotional practices, sporting among others the enigmatic bronze and iron age river finds. Interesting pieces with inscriptions and other engravings allude to battle magic, and, of course, Christian rites. A challenging installation about Christian saints whose attributes are swords tested our expertise.
An interlude between spaces firmly reminds the visitors that swords inflict often deadly damage on the human body. Split skulls, representations of wounds, as well as voice-overs reading descriptions of the consequence of sword use from various sources underline this truth often forgotten when dealing with “fascinating” swords. It leads the visitor to the next space about the propagandistic uses of the sword. It presents, among other things, items representing the confessional propaganda of the Thirty Years war, the U.N. ‘s use of the image of the broken sword, Bismarck as unifier of Germany, and the impressive use of the figure of smith Wieland of the Nibelungen song by national socialist propaganda.
The last two spaces deal with swords and heroes. First through historical narratives and legendary figures, then through movies and gaming cultures, and lastly through different modern activities re-enacting swordplay. A room allows you to step into a recent Czech game and to embody the hero through a device capturing your sword fighting movements while translating it on screen. The large screen in the middle displays fighting scenes from well known movies in front of different cases that display the swords of these movies (or their copies) and posters, including, of course, Star Wars’ iconic light sabre. A large case then displays several sword replicas used for modern sword fighting, including re-enactment, stage fencing and Historical European Martial Arts, supported by interviews and images allowing to learn different perspectives from practitioners. It ends with the allegedly most famous of all famous swords: Excalibur – who will pull it out of the stone and be the once and future king?
I have seen, or collaborated with many large international exhibitions about swords since 2011. This exhibition manages to reach a very high level with innovative and interactive spaces, encompassing a very broad and complete history of the multi-faceted sword cultures. Our research project about martial culture returns enlightened by the exhibition, with thought-provoking ideas for our own exhibition project in 2021-2022.
We thank Dr. Matthias Ohm, one of the curators of the exhibition, for having spent time for us and guided us through the exhibition. Interested readers could turn to the special issue 14 of the journal AiD (Archäologie in Deutschland), which plays the role of the accompanying exhibition catalogue, with 12 scientific contributions and several images from the exhibition itself.