Earlier this year I made a trip to Kassel in central Germany to see the Documenta, an art exhibition that happens there every five years. I was also, however, keen to go to GRIMMWORLD (GRIMMWELT), a museum dedicated to the work of the philologists and scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who spent large parts of their life in Kassel. The Brothers Grimm are famous for collecting and publishing fairy tales, but they also studied culture, language and the history of language.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I am fascinated by fairy tales, but I wondered how interesting a museum about two language-focused scholars could be. I envisioned endless cabinets full of old books, notes and letters (which would have been fine, I love old books). The museum, however, turned out to be much more dynamic.
The exhibition was in an impressively-designed space (apparently newly built and opened in 2015) with great visual and auditory displays, stories and artefacts from the lives of the Grimm family, and information about many aspects of their work. They even had a section for children (and young-at-heart adults) with fun displays inside small fairy tale houses. It also catered very well to English-speakers – understanding German helped me to appreciate some extra things, but I don’t think non-German-speaking visitors would have missed out on much.
I would highly recommend the museum, especially to anyone interested in language, history and fairy tales. To give a little taste of what it has to offer, I thought I’d list a few things I learned there that surprised or intrigued me, and are perhaps not commonly known:
(NOTE: I’m working from my memory, notes and photographs, and have done my best to be accurate and double check facts, but I am often giving a short interpretation or summary from several things I read, so this is not a list of hard, triple-checked facts)
10 Interesting Facts About the Brothers Grimm
1. The Grimms are famous for their work collecting fairy tales, but the task that consumed most of their lives, particularly their later lives, was their work on the German Dictionary. They were so thorough and ambitious in recording the uses, origins, relations and historic uses of words, together with many examples, that by the end of their lives they had only fully completed up to the letter D (Wilhelm died in 1859 and Jacob in 1863). Others continued work on the dictionary, and it was completed over a century after their deaths.
2. Jacob Grimm worked as a court librarian for Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, who was named the king of the area during the French occupation. Later both Jacob and Wilhelm worked as librarians in Kassel.
3. The Grimms were actually two of nine siblings, three of whom died in infancy. They had three brothers and one sister who survived to adulthood. One of their younger brothers, Ludwig Grimm, was an artist, and he did illustrations for some of their publications, as well as some of their portraits.
4. Jacob and Wilhelm were only a year apart in age (born in 1785 and 1786), and were very close. They shared the same room growing up and lived together almost all their lives, even after one of them married. This extract from Jacob’s eulogy for Wilhelm was particularly touching:
5. After the death of their father the family was in dire financial straits and a lot of responsibility fell on the brothers at a young age to provide and care for the family. They also received little financial or social support in pursuing their studies, being of a lower socio-economic status than other students, but excelled nonetheless.
6. The brothers were professors at the University of Göttingen for seven years. When the new King of Hanover annulled the constitution and required people to swear loyalty to him, the brothers, along with several other professors, protested. They were dismissed and exiled. They moved back to Kassel, and eventually to Berlin.
7. The Grimms wrote an incredible number of letters, corresponding with friends, scholars and acquaintances all over Europe in an ever expanding network. The museum has great visual displays that show these correspondences, including an animated map.
8. Some of their contemporaries poked fun at them for being reclusive bookworms and bachelors who stayed indoors hunched at their desks. A puppet show parodied them by featuring two unmarried bookworms.
9. It was actually a friend of the brothers, the poet Clemens Brentano, who asked them to collect folk tales for a project he was working on. Brentano never completed the project, so the brothers eventually published the collection themselves. Their initial interest in the tales was as a record of language and culture, not in providing reading material for children, so the original versions were quite simple and direct.
10. Wilhelm Grimm edited, added to and embellished the fairy tales from edition to edition, weaving in rustic colloquial expressions and proverbs, repetitions and other features that gave them a more typical fairy tale tone. This made them more appealing for an increasingly interested reading public, and gave us the style we still love today.
These are just some of the many things I learned in this wonderful museum. The parts about the fairy tales and the lives of the Grimms were fascinating, but I think the best thing about the museum, for me, was its celebration of language.
The history, change and use of language, and the way language reflects culture, were clearly a passion and lifelong focus for the Brothers Grimm, and this museum expresses that passion beautifully. It helped me to more fully understand the incredible work they did, the time they lived in, and their appreciation of the written and spoken word – an appreciation I share. So in short, it’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in or near Kassel!