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The World of Words, Signs, and Gestures

24 September 2016 to 20 August 2017



An exhibition by the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in cooperation with the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung




We use language every single day of our lives. We talk with one another, we read, write, and gesticulate – and sometimes we also communicate through silence. We use language to build our relationships with other people and to express our thoughts and feelings. Through language we appropriate the world around us; we convey knowledge, store our collective experiences, and shape our environment. And, just like breathing and walking, we take this ability to talk completely for granted. But is it?


Language, whether it’s spoken, written, signed or sensed, is fundamental to our understanding of ourselves as human beings. This exhibition is all about the complexity and intricacy of language, its creative power, but also its beauty. Based on our everyday experiences it explores the connections between the words we speak, our gestures and mimics, and the written word. Why is it that only we humans possess this complex and versatile instrument? And how can we become more attentive to the language we use?


The exhibition draws the visitor’s attention, at all sorts of levels, to the wealth associated with the many manifestations of language in all the areas of our lives, from literature to youth slang. In our daily interactions with one another we use and shape language, come up with new words, and lose others. The radical changes in our living environments, linked to global technological, cultural and economic trends, are not without impact on language either. That is true in particular of societies where many people look back on a history of migration and where multilingualism tends to be the norm rather than the exception. As the exhibition demonstrates, the essence of language lies first and foremost in its creative adaptability, and on site you will find lots of interactive elements to try this out for yourself.



Section 1

HOMO LOQUENS. Speaking of language…

How many languages can a person learn? What do gestures and expressions have to do with language?

On what sort of anatomical and neurophysiological foundations is speech based?

Are new languages still emerging today?

How do children learn to speak?

Can animals talk?


Section 2

MOVEMENTS OF THE MIND. Sense and sensuality of language

How do sensory experiences become figures of speech?

Does language shape the way we see the world?

What part does grammar play in producing meaning?

What techniques do we use for writing and making notes?

How do the realms of fantasy in literature come about?


Section 3

SPEECH CRAFT. The magic and might of language

Can language be neutral?

How do we strengthen the impact of our – public – speaking?

What role does language play in social rituals?

How are digital media changing the possibilities provided by language and speaking?

When does language become a weapon?


Section 4

MOTHER TONGUE(S). Belonging and Self-determination

What does our voice reveal about us?

What if language falters?

How are migration and globalisation changing our languages?

What does it mean to be at home in several languages?

Can languages be dangerous?

What will we be speaking in a hundred years’ time?



Besides exhibits and documents pertaining to the history of science and cultural history, films and contemporary artworks, the exhibition will also feature lots of interactive stations for visitors to discover. Here children, young people and adults have an opportunity to engage in a fun way with various phenomena of language.

Audio texts in German and in plain language as well as videos in German Sign Language will offer an insight into the individual themes. A selection of films and videos will be provided with subtitles and audio descriptions while touch-and-sense exhibits provide a sensory approach to the world of language. All of which gives an interesting perspective for all visitor groups and makes the exhibition accessible also to people with visual and hearing impairments or intellectual disabilities.




Sponsored by







Curator: Colleen M. Schmitz


Curatorial assistants: Isabel Dzierson, Helene Weidner, Lisa Albrecht


Co-curator contemporary art: Susanne Altmann


Thematic research for installations: Christoph Willmitzer, Kirsten Weining,

Theo Thiesmeier, Viktoria Krason, Kathrin Meyer, Roland Meyer


Coordination inclusive exhibits: Anna Diegmann


Consultants: Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung: Bernd Busch, Peter Eisenberg, Michael Hagner, Wolfgang Klein; Josh Berson, Bas Böttcher, Brigitte Felderer; Lebenshilfe Sachsen e.V., Chemnitz: Anja Dworski; scouts – Gebärdensprache für Alle, Dresden: Sindy Christoph, Norbert Richter; Ursula Weber, Dieter Wunderlich


Scenography: büroberlin: Julia Neubauer


Graphic design: Little Adén, Berlin


Translation and subtitles: Stephen B. Gynwasser, Christina Oberstebrink, Untertitelwerkstatt Münster GmbH & Co. KG.


Area: 800 sqm



Some of the artists, authors and poets being shown in the exhibition are:


Theodor W. Adorno

Halil Altindere

Richard Artschwager

Walter Benjamin

Bas Böttcher

André Breton

Shady Elnoshokaty

Max Ernst

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Paule Hammer

Jenny Holzer

Erich Kästner


Dagmara Kraus

Martin Luther

Franz Mon

Herta Müller

Yvonne Rainer

Arnold Schönberg

Nancy Spero

Slavs and Tatars

Bill Viola

Helga Weissova

Stefan Zweig








Muscle head

Anatomical model, 1920’s

© Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum




Richard Artschwager

Exclamation Point (Chartreuse), 2008, © the artist / Artists Rights Society

(ARS), New York, 2016, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery and Sprüth Magers




Demonstration on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz

1989, photograph

© bpk / manfred uhlenhut




Heidelberg Sachsenspiegel (excerpt, folio 24 r)

Illuminated manuscript, early 14th century

University Library Heidelberg




Stroboscopic images of ASL signs

1979, photograph, Ursula Bellugi and Edward S. Klima

©Ursula Bellugi