Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ich bin ein Berliner

During my 7 years of learning German at school the subjects we covered included the contents of our pencil cases, animals, asylum seekers, and by the end of the seventh year I could put up a convincing argument for reasons against abortion (I was, and still am, pro choice, but turns out all the vocabulary for cases against was easier to learn-lots of things about God- anything for an easy exam in those days)

Ten years after finishing my studies and I can just about order a McDonalds breakfast and ask for cream with my cake (all the important stuff then). I managed to spend a week in Germany this summer without having to tell anyone that I carried a pen, pencil sharpener and ruler in my bag, or that I own 8 guinea pigs and a pony. I've avoided entering a heated debate about the influx of asylum seekers into Germany (which is lucky as I remember only the word for asylum seeker and nothing else), and during the past ten years I have managed not to get pregnant whilst in Germany and had to convince the father of my unborn child that an abortion was out of the question, something about it not being "in der will von Gott", maybe.

My first visit to Germany was a trip to Hamburg in August 1989 (aged 5) a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is a photo of me with my family sitting on a fence at a border point, I remember the guards with guns, my face in the photo looks really serious, like I'm really aware of the meaning of the wall, but more likely, I was probably just wanting to get to legoland.

The east/west division was something that intrigued me from an early age, and as my German education has clearly failed me, I've had to take it into my own hands to learn something useful about their history, with my only idea of east German life coming from the film "Goodbye Lenin." During my visit to Germany last month I visited the Stasi Museum in Leipzig and the DDR museum in Berlin.

The Stasi Museum Leipzig was ace ace ace! The museum is housed in what was the Stasi (secret police of the GDR) headquarters. The Stasi operated a regime of spying and terror, and walking through the museum, you can see the rooms from which they worked, what I loved was the eerie feeling whilst in the rooms alone, which was not something created by design, it was just something there in the building.

Thinking that my 7 years of German lessons would mean I could understand all the information, I opted out of the English headset and wandered around, pretending to look clever and understand everything, whilst really trying to work out what was happening through the displays.

The museum has, it seems, been set up on a very low budget, which gives it a certain charm. It seems like, when the peaceful revolution brought an end to the GDR, and tens of thousands of people stormed the Stasi headquarters, what was left behind has remained, in the same place it had always been. Many items are placed in glass cabinets, information is stuck to the wall on corrugated cardboard sheets that resemble a primary school project, but the original wall tiles and curtains remain. I love how un intentional the decision to keep these original parts of the interior probably was, it was maybe not even discussed, but without them, maybe the eerie feeling (and musty scent) would be lost.

I hope they never get rid of the net curtains.

I hope that the Stasi museum forever remains how it is now, and probably how it always has been, in all its musty,fluorescent lit glory, I hope the floral curtains are never replaced, but left to fade and age with the building, that the corrugated cardboard displays remain and that the wigs and fake moustaches look more and more ridiculous with age.

Travelling away from former East Germany, and into the once divided Berlin, I decided to take a walk around the streets that were once in East Berlin (but that's another blog post altogether) what a place! I decided to visit the DDR museum to find out more about life in East Germany. There is no hint of the Stasi regime, or border control here, this museum was all about "Ostalgia" which is a term used for those who miss the old east German way of life.

Unlike Leipzig's stasi museum,The DDR museum has a really modern layout and encourages visitors to be "hands on", with a Trabent car to sit in, a set up of a typical apartment interior, a wardrobe of east german clothes to rummage through, and lots of drawers to open up to see different items. I can see why its popular, especially with children, but, I just didn't like it.

Maybe its because it was really busy and so you couldn't really experience life in an east German apartment when there are 20 other tourists around, opening up the cabinets and posing for photographs. Maybe it was because after learning of the terrors of the Stasi regime, you just cant buy into the idea that there are some people who still want to live back in those days, with a wall around them, the possibility of being spied on, and the only choice of car being one with no fuel gage.

The ideas behind some of the displays made sense to me, but I got the feeling that the East German was of life was being glamorised which I just didn't buy into. With "retro" being so fashionable now, maybe visitors can look back romantically at the old car, the children's toys, the fashions and the interior designs, but then if it was all so idealistic, why was everything replaced once the wall fell? How many apartment interiors in former east berlin resemble what is shown in the museum now? More likely they are furnished in Ikea.

The one thing the Stasi Museum in Leipzig lacked was a cafe, whereas the DDR museum houses a "DDR restaurant" with the menu containing typical east German dishes (think lots of meat and potatoes) The weird vanilla ice cream/custard/cream dessert was the best thing about the museum for me, but I would have loved it more if the restaurant linked better to the museum, design wise. The east German menu contrasted too much with the spotlighting and sleek bar, the addition of a communist mural looks out of place. I couldn't help but think it would have gave a better experience if the furniture from the apartment set up had been transferred to the restaurant(but in a clever way,not a disneyland/obviously themed way), then, just maybe, as I ate my yellow cherry topped dessert, I could have been convinced, even if for a few minutes, that life in East Germany wasn't so bad after all.

Whilst the DDR museum in Berlin is being nominated for awards and attracting the crowds, Lepzig's Stasi museum sits quietly. The DDR museum is purpose built to house its exhibitions, designed to let visitors experience East German life, every detail, lighting choice, material carefully chosen by a design team; in contrast the 19th century building which houses the Stasi Museum in Leipzig was not purpose built as the Stasi headquarters, but during its 40 year occupation by the Stasi, the history, the people and the memories of what happened in the building have etched their place into the building's story, and now, with little (or no) design intervention, the museum leaves an impact on the visitor far greater than the experience of smiling for the camera whilst posing in an east German car.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...