Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Stop 5: Museums of Berlin

With 170 museums, Berlin offers visitors a seemingly endless opportunity to indulge their interests in museums. Berlin’s museums cover all of the genres: art and decorative arts, history, science and technology, interest group, and natural history.

Although I had just visited Berlin 15 months earlier and visited several museums on that visit, I  barely made a dent in that 170-museum list.  More significantly, I only saw—but did not visit—Museum Island, so named because it houses several museums.  These are also the leading art museums in the city and among the leading ones in the world.

Selflessly, I wanted to share them with my partner and selfishly, I wanted to see more of the museums of Berlin.  So that city became the next city on our European tour.

So I returned to Berlin to rectify that situation, and visited these 7 museums (2 return visits, 5 additional ones):

  • The Story of Berlin
  • Neues Museum (New Museum)
  • Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery)
  • DDR Museum
  • Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung (Musical Instrument Museum)
  • Kunstgewerbemuseum  (Museum of Applied (Decorative) Arts)
  • Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum)

The Story of Berlin (www.story-of-berlin.de).   Hidden in the back of a nondescript office building with an interior mall near the heart of West Berlin’s shopping street, Kurfürstendamm , the Story of Berlin provides visitors with an introduction to Berlin through its history.  Although its name comes up in a Google search of museums, some tourist guides label The Berlin Story an attraction.

Because I had just visited it 15 months earlier, I would not have visited the Story of Berlin on this trip.  But even after taking a tour bus through the city, my partner had questions about Berlin and, based on my previous visit, knew that the Berlin Story would answer them.

The Story of Berlin has two parts: a two-story exhibition that walks visitors through the history of the city, and a nuclear bomb shelter, located elsewhere in the building (outside of the exhibition) and that requires a guided tour.

The exhibition focuses on the dramatic: after a brief introduction, it begins with a dramatic walk up the stairs designed to look like a typical, lower middle-class apartment complex in Berlin, and arrives at a multimedia theatre, which provides a cavalcade of images of Berlin through the ages.  Past a curtain, the exhibition begins.  The first part of the exhibition consists of a hallway, which provides a timeline of development of the city, from its founding in the thirteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, when the city emerged as the capital of a united Germany and a leading economic center in Europe.  Off of the main hallway are several period rooms, each focused on a theme—such as the economic development of Berlin—and displaying artifacts (some original, many fabricated) in scenes reminiscent of the period.

Following that is a larger, area, with a small side gallery that explores the World War 1 and the resulting collapse to the German Empire, and a larger area describing the Weimar Republic days.  The latter explores in depth the history and politics of the country, the expansion of the city, and developments in the economy and arts, which had influence far beyond the city limits.

This segment ends with the beginning of the Nazi era (always referred to as National Socialist, rather than Nazi), with a symbolic and literal descent down two flights of stairs to the lower level of the exhibition.  The journey down describes the Nazi rise to power, and its tightening grip on society.  By the bottom of the stairs, Berlin lays in ruins after being nearly destroyed in the war. In one of the most effective scenic displays in the museum, the first section of the lower level recreates the image of a bombed out, debris-laden Berlin, and tells the story of the Soviet blockade and subsequent Allied airlift to break it.  The story continues with the tale of the divided city—told by side-by-side displays showing how different scenes of every day life appeared in democratic West and communist East Berlin, two parts of the same city, divided by the infamous wall.  This segment is probably the most extensive and best documented in the exhibition, and has the largest number of authentic objects.  In fact, one of the objects is a case of American-supplied cheese that was  kept by a West Berliner and donated to the museum.

The exhibition ends with the story of reunification that begins at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

For history buffs, like me, who want an overview of the city’s history and are especially interested in the era when the city was divided, the Berlin Story is superb—especially for people who want to read labels.  The exhibition—with completely bilingual labels—provides gallery labels that describe the general history of an era, case labels that describe history and sociology of a particular issue during that era, and object labels that describe the significance of an object within the larger historical and sociological context.  The labels border on serving as a book on a wall.  I would have liked a copy, but the Berlin Story does not—as of now—publish an English-language gallery guide.

Because of limitations of the physical space, other than the small galleries off the main hallway introducing the history of Berlin, visitors cannot easily choose an era of history to visit and must walk through the entire exhibition.  For example, visitors cannot skip the pre-World War II era and go straight to the part describing the era of two Berlins (as my partner wanted to do).   Although physically possible, signage and other physical barriers prevent visitors from entering at the end and exploring history backwards in time.

The other part of the Berlin Story is the visit to the bunker, a nuclear bomb shelter built in the 1970s under the building housing the Berlin Story.  The location of the bunker is in the parking garage below the building and requires leaving the Berlin Story premises and going outside, to a separate entrance.  After going down several flights of stairs, visitors enter a screening room, where refugees from a blast would enter and be admitted to the protected space beyond the wall.  The shelter was huge—and could be used as parking spaces when not used as a bunker—and lined with beds, four levels of them. The bunker had room for 3600 people.  We could see the wash rooms, the kitchen, the temporary generator (which could provide electricity for two weeks—the amount of time needed until authorities felt it would be safe to go back outside).

Some sections were described through labels, but the bilingual tour guide provided much more information (and often did not provide time to read labels before moving to the next section).  Among the issues raised by the tour guide was the problem of people being cooped up in a small space for an extended period of time.  Although such a space would physically preserve life, no one had really survived an entire two weeks in such a space because the psychological toll was too high.

Neues Museum (New Museum) (www.neues-museum.de) was the first museum I visited on Berlin’s famed Museum Island.  Like the Mall in Washington, DC, which houses the various buildings of the Smithsonian Institution, Museum Island in Berlin hosts several of Germany’s national museums.  As its name suggests, Museum Island is an island but was essentially closed for nearly 60 years, as most of the museums were destroyed in World War II and were not reconstructed until German reunification.  Most of the treasures in the collections survived the war, and the reconstruction of the museums has sparked inspiration and controversy for their adherence to, or liberties taken with, the original designs.  Regardless, UNESCO has designated Museum Island as a world heritage site.

Given its reputation, I was surprised how crowded Museum Island seemed—nothing like the sprawling space in Washington.  Furthermore, I was surprised that the main ticket booth was a trailer, and I had to wait about 20 minutes in cold, precipitating weather to get tickets.  I later read that this, too, is a source of concern.  The master plan includes a welcome center, but its design and cost have caused a lot of controversy and, like the weather that day, its construction is in the deep freeze.

As I entered the museum, which only reopened a year earlier, I noted that the museum and the island are still construction sites.  But I also saw in the buildings signs of age that could be restored to shiny new, but had not been.  Perhaps that’s intentional.

The Neues Museum houses the archeological collections from Egypt and the near East. The highlight of the collection is Negertiti’s Bust, a remarkably well preserved and unique sculpture from ancient Egypt that is noted for its excellent condition and unique representation of the human body, as well as the beauty of its subject.  My partner was really revved up to see it but, to be honest, I didn’t care one way or the other.  Then I entered the room that holds the bust—a small room that still bears some of the scars of the war.  It houses just one object and provides visitors plenty of room to explore it (in marked contrast to the display of Mona Lisa in the Louvre).

And I fell in love.

Nefertiti is truly perfect. She emotes a sensitivity that photos fail to capture, much like  Michaelangelo’s David.  The image is iconic, but can only be fully appreciated in its original form.

After visiting Nefertiti, we could focus on the collection. Her iconic status becomes all the more impressive when one explores the rest of the collection, which is not only historically significant, but just plain nice to look at.

The display of the art seemed surprising; rather than arranging it chronologically, the curators arranged it thematically.  In most museums, a thematic display means that a chronological display would only highlight its deficiencies.  Not so here; the curators used the thematic display as a teaching device, to highlight similarities across time.  That said, the Egyptian collection admittedly seemed smaller than in Istanbul or Met.  In addition, despite the excellent documentation of individual pieces, the galleries lacked broader orientations to the art within, either on labels or through the free audio guides (though I did appreciate that they were free).

Of all the galleries, the one that impressed the most was the display of documents.  The display itself was kind of interesting, using a system of sliding cases that I have not seen in other museums.  Four long, horizontal cases displayed different categories of documents.   Visitors press a button to see several samples, whose conditions varied from excellent to marginal.  But what captured my attention the most was that many of the documents were of a practical and technical nature; attestation to the long history of technical writing in the world, even if it has only recently sought recognition as a profession.

The Egyptology section is a centerpiece, but we briefly passed through a gallery of early Germanic times, before the founding of Berlin in the twelfth century.  Objects provided insights into various political, economic, and religious practices—some quite different from what I expected. When I return, I hope to have a chance to explore these galleries in more depth.

One other part of the museum surprised me—the gift shop.  Not surprisingly, the merchandise was Nefertiti heavy, but the overall size was kind of tiny, given the importance of this museum, the likely number of visitors, and the age of the museum.  I would have expected something larger.

Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) (http://www.smb.spk-berlin.de/smb/sammlungen/details.php?lang=en&objectId=17&n=1&r=2).  Our second stop on Museum Island, the Old National Gallery, a neoclassical museum (like the other buildings on Museum Island) that displays mostly representational German art from the 1600s through the early 1900s, with a few abstract pieces.  The museum had strong imperial connections to the Kaiser.

The artwork on display was excellent, and many galleries focused on the works of just one or two artists.  The museum also houses a large collection of sculpture. Although many of these German artists might be well known within art circles, I had not seen much of their work in North American encyclopedic museums and, in this way, the museum presented a learning  experience.

As I viewed this mostly representative artwork, I could also envision the backlash to the largely abstract painting that emerged in the early days of the 20th century and substantially grew during the years of the Weimar Republic, a rage that culminated in Hitler’s exhibition of “Degenerate Art,” works by artists considered today among the best and most influential of the 20th century.

DDR Museum (www.ddr-museum.de/en/). Tucked onto a small space along one of the canalways of Berlin, just off of a major boulevard and beneath a modern hotel and a galleries with gift shops and restaurants, the DDR Museum tells the story of life in East Germany under Communist rule during the Cold War.  Like the Berlin Story, this “museum” could also be classified as an exhibition.  In fact, I was unclear whether this institution was, in fact, a nonprofit museum or a for-profit exhibition company.  It could easily be described as an attraction.

No larger than  a Gap Store but, on the Saturday night we visited, far more crowded, the museum takes a thematic approach to life in the DDR, rather than a chronological one.  It has sections devoted to work, schooling, leisure, communications, transportation, fashion, and home.  Highlights include a Stasi car, which visitors can sit in, and a recreation of an East German apartment.  Each segment had extensive labels, and encouraged a lot of interaction between visitors and the exhibition.  One involved opening drawers to see objects, others presented stories of school and work life through a series of lockers.   A video theater showed videos of actual television shows from East Germany.

Visitors seemed to brace the interaction but, given the crowd visiting, it caused people to bump into one another, and bunch-ups throughout the exhibition.

Although I thought the toilet looked kind of gross, the rest of the East German apartment didn’t look as awful as I would have imagined—and frankly, more comfortable than the labels gave it credit for.  But an anti East-German bias seemed to permeate the labels in the museum, almost belittling life there.  For example, many of the sections not only focused on the limited selection of consumer goods in East Germany, but their attempts to create inferior products, as in the fashion section, where cotton Levis jeans were contrasted East German jeans made from synthetic fibers.  Similarly, the website showed what looked like a drawing of a bunch of nude people on a beach.  It was actually a photo of a case recreating a beach scene in East Germany.  That—and several photos—focused on East Germans’ love of nudism.  From the perspective of a somewhat prudish North American, it seemed a bit exploitative.

Other segments focused on the sensational, often leaving out crucial information in the interpretive labels.  For example, the section on pre-schools talked about collective potty training of children, in which kids were all sent to the potty at the same time and could not leave until the last child finished.  The label quoted one criminologist, who said that this practice led to certain anti-social and criminal behaviors post reunification.  An internet search found that this explanation is not widely regarded; in fact, sociologists tend to credit more plausible explanations, like the breakdown in society and security post reunification, as the cause of these behaviors.

Implicit—but not explicit—in this exhibition is the historical context, such as how the DDR started. Nor did the exhibition provide any insights into the fall of the DDR.

Upon leaving the museum, my partner commented what I had thought—but had not voiced: that the DDR Museum is somewhat disrespectful in the way it portrayed East German life.

Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung (Musical Instrument Museum) (www.sim.spk-berlin.de). As its name suggests, this museum displays musical instruments from the 1600s onward, with a large collection of keyboard instruments (pianos and predecessor instruments), stringed instruments (guitars, violins and violas), and wind instruments.

The museum designer achieved something that others have tried but often failed—making the entire collection visible from an atrium.  That was the original vision for Atlanta’s High Museum by Richard Meier, but the space was sufficiently large that atrium didn’t provide enough of a view; it merely impeded traffic.  In this case, because the collection and building size were appropriate for the concept, the atrium provides a clear, quick view of the entire three-floor museum.  It also allows the food odors from the lower level cafeteria to freely flow through the building, too.

Exhibits are arranged sort of chronologically by time period, then by type of instrument.  The craftwork on some of these instruments was excellent.

The documentation in the museum, however, is nearly exclusively in German (except for English labels in a temporary exhibit), so the objects had to tell the stories by themselves.  For the most part, they succeeded.    And dates on the labels, which help place the instruments into their historical context, transcend language.  That, in turn, provides a basis for figuring out how different instruments emerged, much as the curators themselves would have to do.

Still, I would have liked to have read the details on one exhibit that showed the creation of a piano from raw materials to finished instrument.  (At the end of the tour, I found an English guide to the exhibitions, which contained complete translations of the labels.)

The museum provided an audio tour, but rather than narrating the exhibition, the guide provides recordings using the instruments.  Press a number and hear something that recorded with that instrument.  At first, I was disappointed but, on second thought, realized that this was perfect.  In the end, aren’t instruments supposed to be played?  Furthermore, aren’t classical and folk music the perfect accompaniments for Sunday morning (when we visited the museum)?

The dates were almost visible (though larger type would have been preferred), resulting in the possibility that someone could begin to figure out the story of the development of these instruments, which included some I had never seen before, but were neither described nor available to hear through the audioguide.

Kunstgewerbemuseum  (Museum of Applied (Decorative) Arts (http://www.smb.museum/smb/sammlungen/details.php?objectId=7).  Both my partner and I share a strong instrument in applied arts—furniture, tableware, desk accessories, and textiles—so this museum seemed like a natural one for us to visit.  And we were not disappointed by a vast collection that is as expansive in its scope as in the periods of time it addresses.

Like its neighbor, the Musical Instrument Museum, this is a three-story museum built around an atrium.  Unlike that one, however, the collection is, at best, only partially visible from the atrium because the atrium is smaller, and galleries are much larger and go much deeper into the building than in the Musical Instrument Museum.

Similarly, like its neighbor, the labels in this museum are almost exclusively in German so the objects had to tell their stories by themselves.

The museum sort of recommends a path through the exhibit through its  design of traffic patterns, but does not support that pattern visually. For example, no sign explicitly advises “the exhibit continues in this direction.”  Furthermore, although the nominally recommended pathway through the museum was chronological, the chronology seemed a bit out-of-sequence.  The third floor presented collections from the 1700s through the 1900s; the second floor presented collections from the 1200s through 1600s, and the first floor presented collections from the middle of the 20th century onward.

Those trifles aside, the museum engagingly displays its excellent collection.  Within an era, the exhibit designers organize objects by type, such as porcelain, silverware, and desk accessories.  The exhibit designers  judiciously used large objects to attract visitors from afar, as well as room constructions (one room reconstruction reminded me of a room where Leisl and her boyfriend meet in The Sound of Music). Once attracted to a section, visitors would find the objects well displayed in cases; no single case was overwhelming though, at times, the sheer number of cases felt overwhelming.  That feeling f being overwhelmed might alos be attributed to the fact that this was the sixth museum we had visited in 3 days.   I might have been in the early phases of museum fatigue.

The emphasis of the collections varies across periods.  In the earliest periods, the collections weigh heavily towards religious objects with few everyday objects.  In contast, much of the collection on display from the 1700s seems weighted towards pottery.  The emphasis in the later years of the 20th century is on furniture.  This is probably a function of what has survived from those times, but also a function of who commissioned the art.  Decorative arts are practical arts (perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to them) and primarily driven by what sells. What sold in the 1200s when the church was the primary benefactor of the arts substantially differed from what sold in the 1800s, an era characterized by growing middle classes.

Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) (www.dhm.de).  Located just off of Museum Island, this recently opened museum (2006) tells the history of Germany, from pre-historic to current times.  Its neoclassical home (with additions designed by I.M. Pei) houses an extensive collection of artifacts that predate the Roman Empire.

But the collections are somewhat disproportionate in size; the two-story exhibition starts on the upper level, which covers all of history until 1918.  The equally sized lower level covers history since then.  This is as much a statement on the availability of objects from different time periods as it is on the complexity and sensitivity of the more recent history.

This was my second visit to the museum; I had only chance to explore in depth the galleries on the Weimar Republic the first time, and quickly glanced through the galleries on early German history.

This time, my partner, who developed a strong interest in recent German history, wanted to start with the most modern history.  So we started the exhibition at the end, which seemed to perturb the guards, who tried in vain to direct us to the upper level where the history technically begins.  But I remembered what an informant for my dissertation told me; a good history exhibit can be visited in any order, including reverse order.  And I was determined to take her advice, if only to help my partner pursue his interests.

Our interest in entering the exhibit at the end didn’t sufficiently bother the guards, they also wigged out over my partner’s carrying his bag with him.  They really should have told us about that when we bought our tickets, as they should have had signs there, too.  

Although I was easily engrossed in the story and the exhibition, my partner—who was less familiar with modern German history-found the exhibit overwhelming. On the one hand, we appreciated the English labels.  On the other hand, the labels are, essentially, a book on a wall.  (The same informant for my dissertation study specifically advised against that.)  The labels did follow the typical three-tiered approach of most modern history museums—gallery, section, and object labels.

But those labels were dense with facts and reading.

In some instances, the overwhelming amount of information resulted in unintended inconsistencies.  For example, in the most recent period, the labels identified incidents by year, even though most incidents were only identified with a headline and no explanatory information for those of us unfamiliar with the events.  This should have suggested to the curators that perhaps they had gone overboard with detail.

Furthermore, in the process of listing every event, this chronological, event-driven approach to history lost the thematic perspectives so essential to an effective interpretation of history.  More than what happened, what ultimately matters is what those events mean in the larger narrative of history.

Perhaps this event-by-event reporting is intended to provide a preponderance of evidence to support particular interpretations of history in the museum, and that might raise concerns among some of the public.  Perhaps that explains the extensive coverage of World War II, which probably takes 50 percent of  the gallery space on this floor.  For history junkies like me, that’s fine.  The more facts, the merrier. But for someone trying to learn the general story, like my partner, perhaps a streamlined version might be helpful.

Summing Up: Future posts on this blog will explore some of the themes in this posting, themes that have particular interest to information, instructional, and experience designers:

  • Displaying difficult material
  • Traffic design patterns in museums
  • Whether or not museum passes are a good deal

Next post:  The Museums of Spain.

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