Monday, 17 May 2010

On Berlin museums

Four days to discover Berlin and, inevitably, its museums. There is no doubt that in this city e can find some of the best collections, mainly from the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations. At the same time, there is no doubt either that a great collection is not enough to guarantee a good experience during a visit. Some of the factors that can frequently spoil the experience in this city´s museums:

- Berlin is now the third European city, after London and Paris, attracting more tourists. Nevertheless, guards in its museums only speak german. Thus, not only do they find it difficult to give information when asked, but also they are constantly giving visitors instructions they are unable to understand.

- Some museums attract large numbers of visitors. To visit the recently reopened Neues Museum people have to purchase their tickets in advance for a specific time slot. I got mine on a Thursday and the first vacancy was for the following Saturday. Queues at certain moments are quiet big, but people with free access (ICOM card or city card holders, etc.) are unable to avoid them. They are obliged to join them in order to get a free entry ticket. In many cities there are separate queues or entrances for these people. Not in Berlin.

- There where audio-guides in every museum, almost always at no extra cost. Although they are an excellent means for those interested in a more detailed visit, they shouldn´t substitute introductory panels and labels, with brief and well written texts. In the majority of Berlin´s large museums either we are experts or we have no idea what we are looking at (apart from the object´s name, date and provenance). There is a total lack of explanations and a minimum of context. There are excellent exceptions: the Neues Museum, the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

- Many times there seems to exist a greater worry with design and less with functionality and access. I saw some very beautiful solutions in a few museums in what concerns showcases and written information (Jüdisches Museum, Neues Museum). At the same time, though, I saw parents carrying their young children for the most part of the visit, in order for them to be able to see the exhibits. Wheelchair users, as nobody carries them, are immediately excluded.

Four days and thirteen museums later, here´s the balance:

The absolutely favorite
- Neues Museum. It has a marvellous collection and, as it was recently refurbished, it took the chance to better exhibit and interpret it. It creates thematic units and gives basic information on each one of them in panels, allowing for more information through other means. The architectonic intervention in the exhibition area is impressive. The highlight of the visit: entering Queen Nefertiti´s room.

- Pergamon Museum. There are many flaws in exhibition design and interpretation, among them, the fact that it allows visitors basic information on the exhibits only through audio-guides. Even though, what makes it a favorite is the Pergamon altar and the Ishtar Gate. Imagine what the experience would have been if these two monuments had been properly interpreted.

- Jüdisches Museum. I had meant to visit this museum for years. I discovered that after all it is more of a famous building by a famous architect. It seems that it aims to keep us in a permanent state of disorientation, both in what concerns the space an the narrative. I didn´t know where I was or what part of the story they were telling me. Many times I was unsure which path I was to follow. This was also one of the museums that used various solutions in terms of design for the presentation of the objects and for making written information available, most of them not accessible.

- Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin´s contemporary art museum. It is a private collection. I came out the same person I had gone in. I didn´t learn anything, because they didn´t explain me anything. Do they think that I know everything or that I like feeling less intelligent?

- Checkpoint Charlie – Mauermuseum. That is, the Wall Museum, conveniently located in one of the city´s most emblematic – and touristic – spots. A ‘museum’? I wouldn´t say so. It is more of a house where a fascinating story is told through texts, that were written 30-40 years ago, and copies of photos. Very few objects. Hundreds of visitors packed in this space, making me wonder whether it is legal to keep so many people in a building under these conditions. It was like a procession. But the aim here is to make money, so crowd control and the quality of the visit are not a big worry. An adult pays €12.50 (the most expensive ticket in a state museum costs €10). Someone should warn innocent tourists off. The visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is free, much more interesting and the documentation centre is next to one of the remaining fragments of the wall. This is a different experience, much more touching and decent.

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