HERE COMES THE DUTCH GUY or THE RESURRECTION OF BERLIN HISTORY MUSEUMS
Image: Märkisches Museum in 1908 (photo by Ernst von Brauchitsch).
New wind is blowing through the dusty corridors and mock-gothic halls of the Märkisches Museum, an impressive 1908 edifice towering over the Köllnischer Park in Mitte.
The actual Berlin City-History Museum, for that´s what – surprisingly for many – the museum is about, has a new boss. After turning the Amsterdam City Museum around and into a public magnet not only for tourists but also for many long-term locals, Paul Spies arrived in Berlin to do the same with the local city-history museum scene.
For truth be told, as much as they are charming and quirky and all, Berlin history museums, including many district museums, destined to tell the story of the city in a compelling and exciting way, seem to be stuck in some kind of a mid-20th-century time-warp. Often, their idea of telling a story feels more like mumbling it through dusty rooms filled with battered wood-and-glass cases where disoriented visitors wander around under super-close surveillance of hawk-eyed staff.
In such places, the thread that is supposed to lead visitors through the collection to help them make sense of what the city or the borough was and is about, is so well hidden that just trying to find it, might already leave you exhausted. And sometimes, there is no thread at all.
And then there is the language thing. How many Berlin museums have really made the effort to help non-German speakers profit from their visit? More often than not, they seem to share the attitude of the lady who “welcomed” us at Berlin´s Ausländerbehörde (Immigration Office) those 12 years ago. To a simple yes-no question posed by a clearly non-German speaking foreigner in English (this was “Ausländer-Office” after all…), she replied drily: “Wir sind hier in Deutschland and hier wird Deutsch gesprochen!” (We are in Germany and you´ll speak German here). Same at many museums, whose management seem to kindly overlook the fact that most of their visitors come from abroad and their grasp of German might not extend beyond Ja, Nein and Schnitzel. Still, they might be happy to read the little plaques next to the objects themselves – sleep-walking around a museum where you cannot understand a single sign apart from “No Smoking!” is far from educating or fun.
That´s why the arrival of Berlin´s latest Dutch import, Paul Spies, is such boon to this business and a reason to look forward to things. With his immense experience in bringing life into city history museums, with his realistic, honest, common-sense attitude to the workload ahead of him (we will do our absolute best to have it ready by July but, hey, it´s February already so it might not work out – don´t hold your breath too tight) as well as with his cosmopolitan air (he held today´s press conference at the Märkiches Museum in German and could have switched to English without a second´s notice) and his robust self-confidence combined with great sense of humour (you will see how important the latter is for the former when you realise that the two cardinal sins of many German high-rank professionals are Pomposity and Arrogance), we have every reason to believe that Märkisches Museum as well as all the other locations ran by the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, are about to get the makeover they have long deserved.
We hear he will start with the name – with all due respect for its history, “Märkisches Museum” doesn´t really cut it – and work his way through its winding labyrinth of over-loaded rooms. It will certainly take a while, especially when you remember that he is now responsible for all the Stadtmuseum objects (Märkisches Museum, Ephraim-Palais, Knoblauchhaus, Nikolaikirche and the Museum Village of Düppel) as well as for the new space for Berlin history and culture which is to open at the future Humboldt-Forum (inside the replica of the Stadtschloss currently being built in Mitte).
Considering that he is also the chief curator for the state of Berlin in the Humboldt Forum, Paul Spies has a lot on his plate. But he also meets the most important requirement for this job: he and Berlin, it´s a love story. So we, for once, are holding our breath:-)