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The politics of donating technological artifacts: techno-nationalism and the donations of the world’s first jet engines

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The Smithsonian Institution’s aviation collection includes two early jet engines, both of which were given to the museum by foreign donors. The first, a prototype of Britain’s first jet engine, which flew during World War II, was donated by the British state in 1949. The second, a replica of Germany’s first jet engine, which flew in late August 1939, was donated by Germany’s leading museum, the Deutsches Museum, in 1980. The two are today presented as equivalent artifacts, yet the paths followed by the two objects to the American museum were anything but equivalent. Recovering the political and historical contexts that informed each of these two donations shows how what was apparently the same action fulfilled two very different agendas. Unlike the British donation, which was calculated to support Britain’s (at that time solitary) claim to having invented the jet engine, the German donation supported a narrative of dual invention, which had become the internationally agreed standard story between 1949 and 1980. This dual-inventor narrative allowed the German museum to forward a more subtle goal than promoting a national inventor; that of depoliticizing and normalizing Germany’s aerospace tradition internationally despite the fact that German aviation had been a locus for German nationalism and National Socialist largess. Reflecting on these two donations raises questions about how technology – particular historical claims about technology made in museums – have contributed to the construction of national identities.
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Keywords: Britain; West Germany; jet engine; museum donation; nationalism; technology

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2014-04-03

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