Thursday, 12 December 2013

Terror and Trabants in Berlin

What makes a memorable museum experience?  As I've worked and researched in museums this year, I've thought a lot about that.  And I thought about it again this week while visiting two very different museums in Berlin.

First, a confession: I'm not a good museum-goer.  My attention span is limited, I like variety, and even if I read information panels diligently, I don't always absorb the information they contain.  But you know something?  I'm not the only one!  Studies of museum visitors show they pass over most interpretive labels without reading them, and rarely follow the paths exhibition designers have mapped out for them.  When was the last time you went through a museum from beginning to end, giving every object and its label your full attention?

While in Berlin at the weekend I visited two museums that addressed different bits of Germany's recent history: The Topography of Terror and The DDR Museum.  The former, located on the site of the Gestapo headquarters, focuses on many aspects of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.  The latter tells the story of life in Communist East Germany from 1945 to 1990.  They each have a difficult story to tell, and do so in radically different ways.

"A Ribbon of Panels"
Permanent exhibition, Topography of Terror
In many ways the Topography of Terror takes a traditional approach.  It is laid out broadly chronologically, with descriptive, illustrated information panels hanging from the ceiling.  Where possible it uses primary sources, and some individual human stories, to draw the visitor into the story it is telling.  There are many scanned documents and photographs on display.

But there's something missing.  This is a museum - where are the objects?  Almost everything in the permanent exhibition - apart from a few audio and video recordings - would have been just the same in a well-illustrated book, such as the one on sale at the museum.

I have taught this topic to various ages of school students, and there was little new for a visitor like me: no attempt to tell a familiar story in striking or thought-provoking ways.  But for someone less familiar with Nazism there was the potential for confusion, as the chronology was unexpectedly broken in places by the Museum's separate presentation of the various institutions of Nazi state terror.  So individual events like Kristallnacht were mentioned or partially explained in two or three separate places, as the roles of overlapping institutions like the SS, SD and various police forces were described.

"A Hands-on Experience of History"
Articles from the Communist coming-of-age ceremony
The DDR Museum was completely different.  Billing itself as "Berlin's interactive museum", it openly aims to draw visitors into the experience of life in the old Communist Bloc.  So as well as reading about it, you can sit in an old cotton-plastic Trabant car, watch propaganda films, try your hand at the decision-making process involved in running a factory, and feel the difference between the Party-approved but poorly-dyed Boxer jeans and the highly subversive Levi's.  There's also a restaurant serving authentic cuisine from behind the Iron Curtain.

Stylish products of a socialist utopia
Now, it goes without saying that it's harder to present a museum about the Nazis in an interactive way.  And the DDR Museum could be accused of making life under Communism seem more bearable, even fun, than it really was.  But with its varied, multisensory approach, it certainly made the learning process more interactive.  And it was more thought-provoking as a result.  Even cheap tricks like hiding information in drawers or cupboards that you have to open, like the clothing catalogue shown here, make you look more closely at them.

words + (horrific) pictures -- is there another way?
Did the Topography of Terror eschew such imaginative presentation because it is dealing with a serious subject that needs to be presented in a straightforward manner?  The first point to make is that their simple, words + pictures presentation is not inherently more objective - the information has been selected and the descriptions written by the museum curators to present a particular picture.  You could even say that it's dishonest to hide this subjective selection process from museum visitors.

I'm tempted to suggest that the weight of the subject matter allowed the curators of the Topography of Terror to be rather lazy in their exhibition design.  It's as if they thought: this is important - people should have to work to learn about it.

But that's not why I go to museums.  I don't always expect to have fun - certainly not in a museum called "The Topography of Terror", but I do expect some originality and freshness of presentation.  I want to have an experience, to feel something.  If you want to find out about Nazi terror, read Richard J. Evans' three-part general history, Robert Gellately's groundbreaking work on the Gestapo, or Victor Klemperer's moving diaries of life as a Jew in Dresden.  Best of all, watch the BBC documentary The Nazis: A Warning From History - you will certainly feel plenty as you are gripped by its chilling interviews with victims, witnesses and perpetrators of Nazi atrocities.

Tasteful decor... reliable news... those were the days.
On the other hand, if you want to experience a glimpse of life in the old GDR, I strongly recommend the DDR Museum.  I can't speak for the quality or authenticity of the J√§gerschnitzel in their restaurant, but it is an excellent learning experience.

What do you think?  What kind of presentation styles do you like in museums?  How long is your ideal museum visit?  Feel free to comment!

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