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"Goethe in the Roman Campagna" (1786) by Jacob Tischbein: The sitter has two left feet and an elongated leg, but the portrait has become Germany's "national painting" (image: U. Edelmann/Stadel Museum/Artothek)

For someone who managed to tell the history of the world in 100 objects, telling the history of one nation in 200 objects should be a doddle. Curiously, however, the tighter the focus the more complicated the task. Not least among the quandaries Neil MacGregor and his curators set themselves with Germany: Memories of a Nation (at the British Museum until January 25) is: which nation are they talking about? Is it the Germania feared by Varus and the Romans or the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and his descendants? Is it the Germany of the Protestant Reformation or that of the princely states? Is it the dual entity of Austria-Hungary and Prussia or the pan-Germanism of the German Confederation after Napoleon? The Prussian-dominated empire that followed unification in 1871 or Weimar Germany? National Socialist Germany or post-war East and West? The 1990 reunified version or the contemporary primus inter pares country that dominates the EU?

The exhibition makes the task marginally easier by starting in the 15th century but 600 years is nevertheless a daunting span. Describing the aim of the show as the evocation of common "memories" is another way of eliding the complexities. Whichever way you look at it, the task of using artefacts to narrate a history of the German-speaking peoples is formidable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is one in which the exhibition only partially succeeds.

On the accompanying radio series MacGregor could tell the story of each object — the Volkswagen Beetle in the Great Court, for example, or a British imitation of a Solingen sword — but as stand-alone objects without the exegesis they become more mundane. The curators try to explain each piece's significance through labelling: it makes for a very text-heavy show. There are too many coins and banknotes too.

There are, though, both some very rare objects and some of spectacular quality. Into the first category falls J.H.W. Tischbein's celebrated 1787 portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna which, despite its anatomical oddities (Goethe has two left feet and one over-long leg), can claim to be Germany's "national painting": to prise it from its Frankfurt home was an act of high cultural diplomacy. There is also a porcelain rhinoceros modelled in 1730 after Dürer's print (which accompanies it) by Gottlieb Kirchner. While it is a curiosity it is also an example of the work supervised by the great porcelain artist Johann Kändler in the early days of the Meissen factory.

More potent, perhaps, because they refer to Germany's wider role as both a unifying force and a divisive one are a Gutenberg Bible — the book that hinted at pan-Europeanism — and a signed bible belonging to Luther — the man who split Germany and much of the continent.

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