And this was about a book, tightly wrapped in academic contextualization and so thick that not many would read it in its entirety. The exhibition Design of the Third Reich in Design Museum Den Bosch connects a lot easier with a broad audience. The display of posters, Nazi paraphernalia, swastika flags, heavy wooden furniture and even a hand-drawn map of a concentration camp is directly accessible and could even be called attractive if the adjective wouldn’t be so perversely out of place here. It’s no surprise the exhibition attracted a lot of criticism.

Most adamant were those condemning the show as a glorification of Nazism. But they would say that about any exhibition daring to touch the subject, that according to them is best left in the vault of collective silence. This Pavlovian reaction is not only shortsighted but also selective. Where were these critics when the Drents Museum in 2012 organized The Sovjet Myth, about social realism under Stalin? Or at the several shows dedicated to North Korean propaganda posters?

A poster for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a propaganda triumph for the Nazi regime that also brought important contributions to graphic design, architecture and documentary filmmaking.CreditMünchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Reklamekunst
But Hitler seems to be in a category of his own. He’s considered the ultimate embodiment of pure evil. To label inventions and expressions made under his regime as equally evil would be wrong, though. An oak or even runes aren’t inherently immoral but the way they’re deployed can be. It’s all about intention and motivation. And that’s what the exhibition in Den Bosch tries to show, going beyond the reflex of isolating and subsequently ignoring the subject, but unfortunately without fulling succeeding.

Design of the Third Reich diligently unravels the ingredients of Nazi design: Romantic folklore, the communicative strategies of modernism and the classicism lending it a veneer of historic credibility. The exhibition shows how Nazi design was injected into all aspects of daily life, the tightly controlled use of party symbols in advertisements being a most telling example. But the show stops short of explaining why this design was so effective, what made it so conducive for a racist ideology.

Kwele Ngon mask, Gabon. Backdrop: Believe by Kendell Geers © Paso Doble – studio Philippe de Formanoir
Another question not answered in the exhibition is: why is important to tackle this subject right now? In interviews Design Museum director Timo de Rijk did refer to the contemporary resurgence of nationalism and antisemitism, with the alt-right openly flirting with Nazi heritage. But this does not enter into the traditionally historic approach of the show. Surely, a comparison between now and then could be perceived as a form of framing or even political correctness, but to analyze the visual language of neo-Nazis today (or a part of it, their meme culture for example) in light of German design from 1933-1945 would have lent the exhibition more of a sense of urgency and purpose. It might even have contributed to a better understanding of why things work(ed) the way they do.

For such a trans-historical approach De Rijk could have taken his cue from Bozar in Brussels. The city, where the Africa Museum only last year did away with its ridiculously colonial set-up and the statues of mass murderer Leopold II that went with it, now hosts InCarNations. The show mixes old African statues and other objects with contemporary art. Next to works by Yinka Shonibare, William Kentridge, Zanele Muholi and many others the historic works are washed clean of the ethnographic cake that has built up over the centuries. Even though this method could be criticized for completely decontextualizing the objects it does allow visitors to look at them anew, discover the power within and maybe infuse them with new meaning.

A 1932 election poster for the Nazi party reading, “That’s enough! Vote for Hitler.”CreditMünchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Reklamekunst
ZANELE MUHOLI, Sibusiso, Cagliari, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Some might consider it inappropriate to compare an exhibition of Nazi design with an innovative presentation of African art, but they are both about breaking with museum conventions. Neither a cordon sanitair nor a rigid art historical framing will ever open up new ways of seeing. Going against the grain may evoke strong emotions and inspire fierce opposition but it does make us realize that art and design always consist of both an object and a context. Recognizing that the latter is flexible brings us closer to understanding how art and design actually work.

A film from the Nazi period at the Design Museum Den Bosch, with explanatory text. The curator said that the presentation of the show made it impossible to take such images out of context.CreditBen Nienhuis, Design Museum Den Bosch
The exhibition brings together more than 270 objects from Germany and the Netherlands as well as films and media installations.CreditBen Nienhuis, via Design Museum Den Bosch
Copyright Yinka Shonibare CBE Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; James Cohan Gallery, New York.
Mano Mask. Republic of Côte d'Ivoire © Paso Doble - studio Philippe de Formanoir
Kendell Geers, Twilight of the Idols (Fetish)2, 2002. Copyright courtesy of the artist