Berlin is a unique place for a number of reasons. During the Second World War, the city was devastated by the Anglo-American bombing raids. Destruction on this scale set in motion an ever-changing cityscape formed of derelict buildings, squats and building sites; topography that has been immortalised in films such as Wings of Desire and The Lives of Others. These films also portray another major influence on the cityscape: the Berlin Wall. This huge landmark separated loved ones, spurred AND prevented progress in building and was ultimately a tangible symbol of political oppression. Today, the fallout of both these factors can still be felt – it has been two years since I last visited, and parts of the city look very different.
As my trip was short (and my main plan was to see Jon Hopkins at the Berghain, and the private art collection at Sammlung Boros – both very minimal places!), I decided to simply photograph maximal spaces as I stumbled across them. This blog entry is consequently less focused than usual. During my visit, however, I did start to think about UK and German approaches to display, and if there are any marked differences between the two. I have recently been reading ‘The Curator’s Egg’ by Karsten Schubert, who briefly discusses the post-war trend, in Eastern Europe and Germany, to produce unremarkable museum structures with transparent façades, perhaps as a reaction against the totalitarian architecture of the Nazi era. This analysis of architecture in relation to politics is an interesting starting point, especially when considering the Stasi Headquarters, where I found the first examples of maximal display.
The Stasi Headquarters:
The accompanying leaflet explains the space better (and more concisely) than I ever could:
On the 15th of January 1990 citizens forced their way into the headquarters of the Ministry of State Security of the GDR and occupied the buildings. As had already occurred in regional branches of the State Security a citizens’ committee to control the Stasi was also formed in Berlin. A military attorney sealed the offices of Erich Mielke, the last Minister for State Security, and his inner circle in “house 1”. A week later, on the 22nd of January, the “Central Round Table” of the GDR agreed to set up a research and memorial site there. Citizens responsible for this task formed the Association for Anti-Stalinist Action (ASTAK e.V.) and made the building accessible to the public. With exhibitions, events and publications, the non-profit association now provides for well over 20 years information about the history of the location and its meaning for the communist regime.
Within this incredible building, which is partly museum and partly heritage site, I found just a few cases packed with objects. This maximal use of space compared sharply with the bleak and simplistic design of the building itself, and this contrast seemed deliberate. Piles of rubber stamps spell out the bureaucratic nature of the Stasi; the repeated use of seat pads gives you a sense of East Berlin décor, while piles of tiny secret cameras crammed into a display case communicates the relentless all-seeing eye of the secret police. Alongside these more cluttered displays were the incredible stories of those who resisted the party and their choking grip. This use of space is extremely powerful. Sandwiched between two floors of exhibitions are Mielke’s offices, preserved almost exactly as they were left. These wood-panelled rooms are oppressive, not only in design but also in feel – one cannot escape the decisions that were made there, and how they affected others.
The Museum für Naturkunde:
A completely different space is The Museum für Naturkunde, which is the largest museum of natural history in Germany. Filled with the usual bones, taxidermy and fossils, this space also has an unusual surprise. In the building’s East Wing, a three-storey steel and glass structure is home to 276,000 glass cylinders, each filled with alcohol preserved fish, mammals, insects, invertebrae and reptiles. Walking into the space is like walking into an Alladdin’s cave. As you can see from the photographs, the lighting and vast nature of this display is breath-taking to behold. The recent reconstruction of the space, after its destruction during World War Two, is also an impressive feat. Painstaking work went into researching lost information, and restoring specimens that had been badly damaged. The modern steel shelving and decision to display the specimens in one large block, which can only be observed from the perimeter, creates an effect that is similar to an installation. Unlike the Grant Museum, with its tiny aisles and jumbled shelving, this display of specimens is immediate and monolithic.
I also came across a few interesting window displays. My favourite was a children’s toy shop, which was packed full of traditional wooden treasures, and was probably the least ‘heavy’ space I explored during my time in Berlin. I am sure, however, that with a little research I could quickly discover a dark story about the space, such is the nature of a city with an amazing history.