The Gargantuan and the Diminutive – War at the Museum

Abstract: Military history museums endeavour to be a space where the conditio humana as it relates to war can be discussed. However, their topics are contentious, they are prone to being (mis)used to foster nationalism and militarism, and they feature objects and representational forms that are inherently problematic: large exhibits and dioramas. This article will provide insights into the difficult relationship of the gargantuan and the diminutive in war exhibitions and their perception by visitors.
Languages: English

The gargantuan and the diminutive are often encountered in war exhibitions, where they pose a dilemma. Visitors are confronted with towering, awe-inspiring machines of war. At the same time, diminutive elements such as scale models and dioramas[1] are employed to visualise ideas and concepts that would otherwise be difficult to imagine. Both extremes attract and engage visitors but can also glorify and tame war. What role does scale play in war exhibitions? How do visitors perceive these displays?

The Scale of War

Military history museums have become more inclusive and self-critical in the past decade.[2] They endeavour to be a space where the conditio humana, as it relates to war, can be dissected. However, this is not true in all instances. In particular, museums in autocratic systems are prone to be (mis)used to disseminate propaganda and to justify acts of war.[3] To complicate matters the oft-encountered machinery of war and dioramas are themselves inherently problematic.[4] The relationship between the gargantuan and the diminutive in combination with such ‘difficult history’ is the focus of this short article, as it is a unique feature of military history museums.

The formidable and imposing quality of tanks, battleships and fighter planes cannot easily be softened. They can act as reverential objects that focus visitor perception on their technological and design characteristics. This is most pronounced in exhibitions on the First or Second World War.[5] In sharp contrast, miniaturised or life-sized dioramas feature thousands of figurines to illustrate troop movements and geography. Life-sized mannequins embedded in naturalistic environs are supposed to provide vivid and attractive narrative set-pieces for visitors. These displays of craftsmanship remain attractive to visitors due to their aesthetic qualities and vividness, yet they tend to tame war.[6]

The remaining objects – uniforms, documents, small arms, mementos etc. – are framed by these two extremes that refer to a fundamental characteristic of war: it is unimaginable, at least to the visitor that has not experienced war first-hand. Its scale is overwhelming, the numbers involved – both material and human – are hard to grasp. Its execution is chaotic, sources and witnesses unreliable. Death, suffering, trauma cannot be fully represented in a museum setting, only alluded to.[7] Accordingly, displaying large exhibits and scale representations is an attempt to bring visitors within reach of understanding war, while simplifying its complexity at the same time.

Museum Simulations

As Stephan Jaeger rightly points out, historical exhibitions cannot reproduce historical experiences or environments – instead, they can only simulate historical realities.[8] That being the case, it is impossible for them to create a truthful depiction of whatever they seek to represent. Instead, they actively create something new, a simulation of reality. Thus, representation becomes a practice of constructing meaning and reality.[9]

The crux of the matter is that visitors usually assume that exhibitions are based on academic research. They are perceived as a reliable source of ‘truthful’ information. However, museums cannot disseminate ‘truths’. At best, they offer balanced narratives that are based on verifiable facts; at worst, they serve as propagandistic outlets that actively attempt to shape public opinion for nefarious purposes.

Are various interpretations and contradictory narratives juxtaposed in the simulation or is the narrative deliberately restricted to a single master narrative? Are visitor expectations exploited to propagate an agenda or counterfactual content? Both questions point to the politics of display: museums are influenced by the intentions and ideas of their creators, government officials, visitors, activists, etc.[10] If modern military history museums endeavour to be a space were warfare in all its facets can be proactively discussed, they must reveal the simulatory nature of their exhibitions, juxtapose various narratives, and critically assess how the represented realities are constituted. The goal would therefore be a ‘school of critical thinking’.

The Deceptive Diorama

In acknowledging exhibitions as simulations, the inherent challenge of dioramas is revealed: they are handicraft that attempt to represent a historical event without the necessity to refer to real events or objects – after all they are constructed by model makers as they see fit. The diorama can be an expression of a hyperreality that has no reference point in verifiable facts.[11]

It then follows that dioramas could emphasise the simulation character of an exhibition and invite reflection. However, in many cases the exact opposite takes place: curators employ dioramas to authenticate exhibition contents. On a metacommunicative level, dioramas suggest omniscience. Every detail is – apparently – meticulously reconstructed and furnished with authority by the museum setting. In addition, only one version of a historical event is usually presented. The decision-making process behind this selection is not apparent and an opportunity to engage critically is not provided. Consequently, the polyphony of reality is disguised by the static nature of dioramas.

As Mélanie Boucher notes, it is this ‘disingenuous neutrality’ of dioramatic forms of representation that critics take offence with.[12] Nevertheless, the museum diorama does not intend to deceive, instead it offers an archetypal world or, as Ralph Rugoff aptly puts it: “a compelling substitute for the real world”.[13]

Sublime Machinery of War

Burke’s classical reflections on the ‘sublime’ and the ‘ugly’ provide some pointers for the relationship of diminutive and gargantuan displays in museums. As Burke elaborates:

“A great beautiful thing is a manner of expression scarcely ever used; but that of a great ugly thing is very common. There is a wide difference between admiration and love. The sublime, which is the cause of the former, always dwells on great objects, and terrible; the latter on small ones, and pleasing; we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us; in one case we are forced, in the other we are flattered, into compliance.”[14]

This leads us to the question: if, initially, visitors experience the sublime when they are confronted with a large exhibit, does this then colour their perception and lead to admiration of the machinery of war? According to Preußer, this sensation is caused by being at first overwhelmed by the size or threat potential of an object, or the sheer number of exhibits (e.g. a series of tanks or a room-filling diorama with thousands of figurines) and then distancing oneself from largeness and quantity, regaining control of one’s senses and the illusion of control over the situation.[15]

In effect, viewers derive positive pleasure from overcoming the ‘threat’, which in turn leads to experiencing the sublime. However, this can give viewers the faulty impression that war can be controlled or that it is amenable to reason. It is up to the museum to either exploit this tendency or to contextualise large exhibits to counteract it.

Visitor Perceptions

Both diminutive displays and large exhibits pose challenges to museum professionals: one due to its ‘disingenuous neutrality’ the other due to its tendency to lead to admiration and awe. Both go against the desire to offer balanced reflective spaces. However, looking at visitor responses, a more nuanced – if preliminary – picture of how these representational forms are perceived is revealed. Based on exploratory qualitative semi-structured interviews and focus groups at the German Air Force Museum Berlin-Gatow (n=26), the German Tank Museum Munster (n=9) as well as the Tin Figure Museum Goslar (n=20), several tendencies can be identified.

Concerning dioramas, all visitors in the sample approached them initially as aesthetically pleasing displays of craftsmanship. Admiration was centred on the model builders who create the (miniature) worlds, not the scenes themselves. If contextual information was missing, visitors did tend to impose their own interpretations and narratives, leading to politicization or sometimes counterfactual interpretations. In many cases visitors recognise them as simulations or reconstructions and they have no reservations about the representation of difficult history. Forced labour, sexual violence, violence against civilians, being wounded and dying are considered inseparable from acts of war, accordingly their representation in dioramas is advocated for. Interviewees also drew parallels to the current events in the Ukraine, in particular the realization that war crimes against the civilian population are a basic characteristic of warfare throughout history.

Regarding large exhibits, visitors predominantly focused on technological or design aspects, prompted by a personal interest e.g. being a member of the armed forces, an engineering student or air war enthusiast. Only if contextual information was provided and absorbed was this initial impression modified. In the sample, individual biographies and scenographic interventions led to an appreciation of the destructive potential of the aircraft and the magnitude of civilian casualties at the air force museum.[16] It is noteworthy, if anecdotal, that members of the German military more readily acknowledged the destructive potential of the objects on display, due to being personally acquainted with their capabilities.

Dioramatic Potentialities

Dioramas that (super)impose an awareness of their simulatory character and allow visitors to recognise them for what they are – elaborate stage plays – may allow visitors to reflect on the nature of war. Their main strength is vividness and an ability to capture attention. It is, however, important to take visitors seriously and consider their ability to ‘do’ history, that is, work with the material provided to create their own explanations and connections.

Large exhibits must be contextualised and arranged in such a way as to modify the initial response of admiration and awe, scenographic interventions that disturb assumptions and raise awareness of their destructive potential are sensible ways of achieving this goal.


Further Reading

  • Jaeger, Stephan.  The Second World War in the Twenty-First-Century Museum: From Narrative, Memory, and Experience to Experientiality. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020.
  • Kerby, Martin et al.. “The Museum Diorama: Caught Between Art and History,”Australian Art Education 38, no. 2 (2017), 354–71.
  • Sommer, Christopher. “Kriegsgespinste – Textile Inszenierungen von Todesnähe und Verletzlichkeitsnarrativen in Kriegsausstellungen. Das Militärgeschichtliche Museum als Diskussionsforum.” In Der Tod und das Ding: Textile Materialitäten im Kontext von Vergänglichkeit, edited by Melanie Haller, Traute Helmers and Stefanie Mallon, 249–68. Münster: Waxmann, 2020.

Web Resources


[1] Dioramas are scale representations, that is life-sized or miniaturised scenes, depicting people by means of metal or plastic figurines or mannequins, populating recreated landscapes or environments. Often, they aim to depict a historical scene or narrative.
[2] Cf. Thomas Thiemeyer, Fortsetzung des Krieges mit anderen Mitteln: Die beiden Weltkriege im Museum (Paderborn: Schöningh 2010), 316–324.
[3] A recent example is Russia, where military history exhibitions are outlets for state-sponsored propaganda, aimed at enhancing acceptance of the invasion of Ukraine and to disseminate counterfactual narratives to justify aggression. Cf. Anton Weiss-Wendt, Putin’s Russia and the Falsification of History: Reasserting Control over the Past. (London: Bloomsbury Academic 2022), 65f.
[4] Dioramas are still widespread in military history museums of all sizes. For instance, a highly theatrical exhibition on the Gallipoli campaign at the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa features dioramas of trench systems, models of hospital ships and larger-than life hyper realistic sculptures of combatants. Cf. Kirstie Ross, “Conceiving and Calibrating Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War,” in Museums Australia Magazine 24, no. 1 (2015), 22–30. At the German air force museum in Berlin-Gatow life-sized dioramas featuring mannequins and recreated environs are used in a recent special exhibition on the First World War.
[5] Cf. Ralf Raths, “Identitäten aus Panzerstahl. Das Deutsche Panzermuseum Munster zwischen Blitzkriegfans und Farbattacken,” in Historische Museen heute, eds. Michele Barricelli and Tabea Golgath (Schwalbach: Wochenschau 2014), 58–67.
[6] Cf. Christopher Sommer, “Kriegsgespinste – Textile Inszenierungen von Todesnähe und Verletzlichkeitsnarrativen in Kriegsausstellungen. Das Militärgeschichtliche Museum als Diskussionsforum,” in Der Tod und das Ding: Textile Materialitäten im Kontext von Vergänglichkeit, eds. Melanie Haller, Traute Helmers and Stefanie Mallon (Münster: Waxmann 2020), 249–68, here 255f. and Martin Kerby [et al.], “The Museum Diorama: Caught Between Art and History,” in Australian Art Education 38, no. 2 (2017), 354–71.
[7] Cf. Jay Winter, “Museums and the Representation of War,” in Does War belong into Museums? The Representation of Violence in Exhibitions, ed. Wolfgang Muchitsch (Bielefeld: Transcript 2013), 21–37, here 36.
[8] Stephan Jaeger, The Second World War in the Twenty-First-Century Museum: From Narrative, Memory, and Experience to Experientiality (Berlin: De Gruyter 2020), 51.
[9] Cf. Silke Wenk, “Repräsentation in Theorie und Kritik: Zur Kontroverse um den ‘Mythos des ganzen Körpers’,” in Kunstgeschichte und Gender. Eine Einführung, ed. Anja Zimmermann (Berlin: Reimer 2006), 99–113, here 98.
[10] Cf. for instance Daniel Logemann, “On ‘Polish History’: Disputes over the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk,” in Cultures of History Forum (21.3.2017), (last accessed August 8, 2022).
[11] Similar to Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 167f.
[12] Cf. Mélanie Boucher, “Starving of Sudan De Xu Zhen. Epistemology and Pragmatics of the Diorama,” in Espace Art Actuel 109, Fall (2015), 12–17, here 14.
[13] Cf. Ralph Rugoff, “Bubble Worlds,” in Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art, eds. Toby Kamps and Ralph Rugoff (New York: Distributed Art Publishing 2000), 12–16, here 13.
[14] Cf. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: With an Introductory Discourse Concerning Taste (New York: Harper & Brothers 1844), 142.
[15] Cf. Heinz-Peter Preußer, “Masse und Gewalt: Das Panorama als Dispositiv der Schlacht,” in Gewalt im Bild. Ein interdisziplinärer Diskurs, ed. Heinz-Peter Preußer (Marburg: Schüren 2018), 97-143, here 109.
[16] For example the German Airforce Museum in Berlin-Gatow attempts to contextualise a Heinkel He 111 bomber in embedding it in a scenography: bombs are mounted as if being dropped out of its hold and fragments of an orphanage building, that was damaged during the Rotterdam Blitz in 1940 by the type of bomber on display, are placed in close proximity to the heavy bomber. 


Image Credits

“Permanent exhibition of the German Air Force Museum in Berlin-Gatow”. © Christopher Sommer, July 2022 (private property).

Recommended Citation

Sommer, Christopher: The Gargantuan and the Diminutive – War at the Museum. In: Public History Weekly 10 (2022) Issue, DOI:

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    To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    Hot and Cool Media in War Museums

    The text about “the Gargantuan and the Diminuitive” in exhibitions about war(craft) and/or violence treats, among others, the question of the ‘realness’ of war history on display and the visitors’ emotional involvement. In this context the term ‘historical experience’ is stressed by the author. This term is particularly interesting since it raises, as the author appropriately stresses, the question of representation as “a practice of constructing meaning and reality”. This aspect, in my view, needs more explanation. As Alun Munslow puts it, the representation of history consists of two different categories: The past as content and history as expression. History is not equal to the past, but a representation of the past as history.[1] In this process the past is transformed into something new.[2]

    The term ‘experience’ is equally important.[3] In the German language it can be translated with two different terms: ‘Erlebnis’ and ‘Erfahrung’. In the particular case of the representation of wars both terms have been theorized under the notion of ‘Kriegserfahrung’ and ‘Kriegserlebnis’. According to Manfred Hettling, the term ‘Kriegserlebnis’ means “impressions, stimuli and perceptions the soldiers of the World War were confronted with”.[4] In contrast, ‘Kriegserfahrungen’ are individual experiences that can never be transmitted directly, i. e. without losing their original form. This concept presumes that the transmission of an experience is always influenced by social settings and by particular practices of translation such as displays or narrative strategies. They give former experiences a new meaning.[5]

    Museums lack the ability to revive past events with their means. As objects of the past, former experiences are unavailable. Their reality must be experienced (in the sense of ‘erleben’) but cannot be communicated without changing their status (from past to history). However, curators can provide an impression of the feelings triggered by experiences. In this context, a crucial question for museums that depict wars is: How important is a quite detailed reconstruction of historical situations or milieus to provide an appropriate idea of previous experiences? Do we trust in the power of mental images that are based on some “reticent objects” (Peter Vergo)[6] and need no support by re-enactments or realistic scenography or dioramas to engage visitors emotionally? Or do we need to show war experiences in the most evident manner – that means visually and auditively as directly as possible – to reach the contemporary visitor? Do we need “gargantuan” war objects such as tanks or air planes to trigger visitors’ attention?

    To answer this question, the differentiation between hot and cool media proposed by Marshall McLuhan is useful. Hot media extend one single sense in high definition, support it with additional information and contain extensive data and details (e. g. movies) whereas cool media such as speech do not:

    “[…] speech is a medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.”[7]

    Whereas the recipient of hot media is not very engaged to complete the message and to understand the meaning, cool media depend on the participation of the recipient to convey their messages. Without intellectual effort of the user they remain silent. Therefore, McLuhan contends, cool media involve their visitors or audiences whereas hot media exclude them. If this is true, the visitor’s emotional access to the past does not depend on explicit performances or detailed reconstructions of past environments (hot media). On the contrary, hot media are supposed to be consumed passively whereas cool media require active examination and promote a deeper understanding of the past.,

    In this respect, it could be helpful to reflect the questions about the gargantuan and the diminutive in war exhibitions by taking into account the discussions about hot and cool media.


    [1] Alun Munslow, Narrative and history (Hampshire/NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 9.
    [2] Cf. Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973).
    [3] Cf. Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience” in Critical Inquiry 17 (1991), 773–797.
    [4] Manfred Hettling, Art. „Kriegserlebnis“ in Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, eds. Gerhard Hirschfeld, Gerd Krumeich, and Irina Renz (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2009), 638–639, here 638; Klaus Latzel, „Vom Kriegserlebnis zur Kriegserfahrung. Theoretische und methodische Überlegungen zur erfahrungsgeschichtlichen Untersuchung von Feldpostbriefen“ in Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen 56 (1997), 1–30.
    [5] Cf. Scott, The Evidence of Experience.
    [6], Peter Vergo, “The Reticent Object” in The New Museology, ed. Peter Vergo (London: Reaktion, 1989), 41–59.
    [7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extension of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill 1965), 22–23.

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