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In April 1665, six fishermen became eyewitnesses of an inexplicable celestial phenomenon - an aerial battle over the Baltic Sea near Stralsund, towards evening a dark gray disc appeared over the center of the city. "UFO 1665" is the first exhibition on this historical UFO sighting. Using contemporary visual and textual sources, it reconstructs the media career of the event and reveals thought patterns and communication strategies that still determine reporting on "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena" (UAPs) today.

Veranstaltungen in Berlin: UFO 1665. Die Luftschlacht von Stralsund
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek

The exhibition is an expedition into a strange world of images that hides from the mass audience of museums between the pages of old books or in archives. Those who know the art of the 17th century only from the great painting galleries will rub their eyes in surprise. One has the impression of entering a baroque parallel universe with strange signs in the sky, airships, space rockets and flying discs.

Everything revolves around one of the most spectacular celestial phenomena of modern times: on April 8, 1665, at 2 p.m., six fishermen fishing for herring off Stralsund observe how flocks of birds in the sky turn into warships engaged in thunderous aerial battles. Ghostly figures swarm on the decks. When, towards evening, "a flat round shape like a plate" appears above the church of St. Nicholas, they take flight. The next day they tremble all over and complain of pain.

In the media the news spread like wildfire. Leaflets and newspapers competed with each other with a wide variety of versions and interpretations. Above all, religious beliefs determined the media transformation of the event. People could not have known that it was an atmospheric reflection of a sea battle raging behind the horizon. They lived in the belief that the universe was governed by a god who could project impending visitations into the sky. The air battle was also interpreted as such a "prodigium" (Latin for "portent").

Likewise, 17th-century image design had a significant influence on the medial transformation of the air battle. Futuristic visions of airships, for which people of the 17th century were enthusiastic, played a special role. More than 100 years before the first manned balloon flight, Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687) had published the design of a flying boat carried by vacuum spheres, which caused a furor throughout Europe. The fact that the project was never realized did not dampen the euphoria. People dreamed of conquering air space.

Another theme of the exhibition is the power of myths: when on June 19, 1670, lightning struck the Church of St. Nicholas, of all places, over which the disk had appeared five years earlier, ominously, the celestial phenomenon was interpreted in retrospect as a sign of God's wrath. Contemporary descriptions and depictions of the event invoked a mysterious connection with the destruction of Babylon by a gigantic millstone, as described in the Revelation of John.

The collective image of the air battle over Stralsund, however, is not only shaped by the media, beliefs, designs and myths of the Baroque era. It also reveals what could not have been imagined at the time. Thus, no 17th century source mentions extraterrestrials in connection with inexplicable celestial phenomena.  But the human imagination was long ago so far to imagine expeditions to inhabited planets and corresponding propulsion systems. Why, however, no one had the idea that extraterrestrials could appear in our skies with flying machines is one of many mysteries that the exhibition tries to solve.

At the end of this cultural and media-historical investigation, an excursion into the present follows. The focus is on the videos and reports of sightings of mysterious "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena" (UAPs) by the U.S. military that went viral in 2019 and even made it onto the cover of an issue of Der Spiegel two years later. The range of the discussed interpretations is insanely large. Are they physically explainable natural phenomena, superior high-tech drones of Chinese or Russian production, extraterrestrials or even visitors from the future? Even NASA and the Pentagon don't seem to have a clue. One thing is certain, however: the factors that were decisive for the media career of "UFO 1665" have lost none of their power to this day.

"UFO 1665. The Air Battle of Stralsund" is curated by Moritz Wullen, Director of the Art Library.
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Opening hours: Tue - Fri 10 am - 6 pm, Sat + Sun 11 am - 6 pm