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“Not Everything was Good, but Many Things were Better”: East German Everyday Life, Material Culture, and the Museum Open Access


Other title
East Germany
everyday life
past mobilizing
cultural memory
Dokumentationszentrum Alltagskultur
DDR Museum
material culture
German Democratic Republic
GDR museum
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Winkler, Anne
Supervisor and department
Mookerjea, Sourayan (Sociology)
Examining committee member and department
Siemens, Elena (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies)
Bach, Jonathan (Public Engagement, New School, New York)
Thompson, Guy (History)
Smith-Prei, Carrie (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies)
Department of Sociology

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This dissertation draws on the rich context of contemporary Germany for interrogating divisive public debates on Germany’s socialist past. Grounded in the analysis of specific places and objects, particularly those relating to museums, it investigates simultaneously three distinct but also closely connected modes of accessing the past: history, memory, and materiality. Fieldwork conducted in Germany between 2008 and 2013 provides the empirical foundation for this work. Through the application and analysis of such concepts and figures as Igor Kopytoff’s (1986) biography of things, Svetlana Boym’s nostalgia (2001), Walter Benjamin’s rag collector (1999) and Michel Foucault’s (1984) heterotopia, the dissertation explicates how marginal cultural practices and products invoking history and memory complicate widely circulating representations of the East German past. The thesis argues that these practices conceptualize socialist Germany in ways that dominant discourses reject or omit and thereby gesture towards the possibility of plurality and nuance in constructions of the past, which in turn have ramifications for imagining the future. I formulate the concept past mobilizing to denote cultural activities that put the past to use strategically and tend to the past, present, and future simultaneously. The methodological approach that informs this dissertation foregrounds the relationship between people and things as it illuminates the role that objects play in creating and sustaining meanings. In this context, I propose the term and practice of research-by-making as an investigative tool that through the technique of publically exhibiting scholarly work affords a focus on the material and creative dimensions of inquiry. In my work, this approach consisted of putting on display toys, kitchen utensils, postcards, as well as other objects relating to quotidian life in a show entitled East Germany on Display: Dictatorship, Nostalgia & Everyday Life. My central aim in the overall project is to ground the analysis of mobilizations of the past concretely in experiences and, most significantly, things.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
Citation for previous publication
Winkler, Anne. 2011. “‘Not Everything was Good, but Many Things were Better’: Nostalgia for East Germany and its Politics.” In Ecologies of Affect: Placing Nostalgia, Desire, and Hope, edited by Tonya Davidson, Ondine Park, and Rob Shields, 19-42. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred University Press.Winkler, Anne. Forthcoming. “Remembering and Historicizing Socialism: The Private and Amateur Musealization of East Germany’s Everyday Life.” In Exhibiting the German Past: Museums, Film, Musealization, edited by Peter M. McIsaac and Gabriele Mueller.Winkler, Anne. 2014. “‘Kept Things’: Heterotopic Provocations in the Museal Representation of East German Everyday Life.” Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research 6(2) 101-122.

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