Deutsches Technikmuseum – Neubau

Thursday night, I was riding home from Kreuzberg going via the Park am Gleisdreieck, formerly the Berlin rail yards, across the canal from Anhalter Bahnhof. The park itself didn’t exist a couple of years ago, and taking a left-ish veering, I found myself in the newest part which was mostly wasteland and construction site only a year ago. Then it occurred to me I would arrive on the canal near Deutsches Technikmuseum, and that decided which museum would be my choice for Sunday.

As with Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which is an umbrella for a score of museums, of which the Bode-Museum I visited last week, the Deutsches Technikmuseum is part of the Stiftung of six technical museums. Which obviously means between the two, my next six months of Sundays are taken care of.

The Technikmuseum is massive. It has a DC-3 embedded in its roof four very high floors above the bend in the canal on which it is sited, and like an iceberg, 9/10ths of it is not visible from the frontage; it goes back about ten times its width. I made it through most of the Neubau today, and most of the Altbau, so there are another six sections to go – and I did some skipping; the Neubau alone is a full day’s undertaking.

Awesome stuff: Zuse computers the size of a walk-in wardrobe, like the Z22 with 38kB of storage, also a Z1, which was sublime to see for the mechanical structure that if miniaturised would look more-or-less identical the processor in my laptop. Textile industry history, from looms to flower-making machines, especially the wire-rope making. Telegraph and wireless – and television – with the equipment shrinking in size and increasing in complexity and power from the proof of concept to utterly massive industrial structures. A lot of dioramas too, with interactive stuff (the museum is a total playhouse for children who were swarming, being a Sunday and all).

That was most of the Altbau, though I seem to have missed the printing, and paper technology parts. Off to the Neubau for ships! And aeronautics! Arriving is well-impressive, being greeted with an exhibition of model ships in circular mounts, each reflecting off the other. And there was a brigantine, my favourite of all ships. Next floor up and a summary of ship-building techniques from wood to steel, and that most important of elements, rope, with a history of its manufacture, natural fibre and wire both.

I was thinking, around this point, as I walked the long corridor flanked with large and intricate models of shipping from the earliest sailing the Mediterranean to container ships and supertankers, past navigation tools (now I understand how sextants work), maps and mapping techniques, a small display of tools of the opium trade, what’s the purpose of a museum? What do I see when I’m in a museum, and what am I expected to gain from the experience? The idea of betterment, rooted in the Age of Enlightenment in progress, hope, emancipation is somewhere in the background in the idea of a museum; I should depart with an improved understanding of the world, or a part of it, perhaps feel invigorated by the clear and well-enunciated illustration of progress, maybe a little smug or relieved I live now as opposed to then, satisfied that the world turns apace and tomorrow will be better, will bring further improvements on the road forward.

That, and brilliant exploded-views of V-10 aeroplane engines, and cutaway views of a 6-cylinder engine with opposed pistons (the Jumo 205, effectively two flat-6s merged where the cylinder heads would normally be), early jet planes, rockets and rocket engines, a Rolls-Royce engine for something like a Learjet, the crashed and corroded remains of a Stuka and part of a Lancaster, a Maybach engine surrounded by desperate WW1 pilots flying wooden props on tiny, fragile engines … yes, I was in the flight museum.

There was a cutaway of one of the model ships at the entrance to the shipping museum, you could see the stone ballast, above which the cargo was loaded, barrels packed tightly, then the crew or passenger berths below deck. I had a grim thought of bodies packed in place of barrels on the Middle Passage, and despite my obvious enthusiasm for technology, wondered if the museum in itself was generating an equivalent enthusiasm with something of an embarrassed look the other way when it came to the costs of it.

Walking the wrong way around as I tend to, I’d gone back in time and arriving at a large rusted-iron-walled, container-sized room had no idea nor expectation of being extremely unsettled once I entered. I could only enter a few steps before running up against wire-grilled gates. There was no light, other than one weak source in the background, turning the bodies into silhouettes. The bodies sat and lay on three levels, packed in the darkness, each face and body distinct as my eyes adjusted. This was the cargo of the Brandenburgisch-Afrikanische Compagnie.

A year of so ago, I was doing some reading on South Africa, on Afrikaners, and Deutsch Südwestafrika, which gave me a very different – and far more closer to the truth – understanding of the origins of the holocaust, genocide, colonialism, the place of Germany in this, as well as my own Afrikaner history. It shapes the world differently once things are known. It’s not about progress or the tropes of enlightenment; it might be at best a temporary saving of what can be or of what is left to be saved from erasure, that will be seen by few and change nothing. It can also be an assembling over years and decades or longer that has unexpected consequences.

That it was Brandenburg and ‘Germany’ involved in the slave trade, and that it was not for long nor on the scale of the British and others is about the extent of my knowledge now, neither points invalidate in any way statement that Germany engaged in and profited from the Atlantic slave trade, which is why this exhibit is in the museum. It also changes or clarifies the some seemingly unrelated things.

Seeing this made me think of blackface in German (and European) theatre, which turns up on a semi-annual basis. There is an argument (reductively put here) that proposes the German/European domestic situation is different to that of USA, so blackface does not carry the same significance or racism. Against this is the charge that theatre is nonetheless racist and discriminatory for not employing non-white performers. It occurred to me, seeing these bodies shoved in the darkness, that one of the consequences of a country’s involvement in such an act in its history is that the descendants of the crime have a right to a voice, to define the issue on their terms, irrespective of national boundaries and where they might be located now. Which is to say that the discussion of blackface in German theatre unequivocally falls within the space of critique by Afro-Americans precisely because they are in the US in part due to the actions of people, the descendants of whom are now German.

Whether what I wrote is coherent or not, it was a thought that travelled with me through the remainder of the Neubau, which I think also pretty conclusively answered my question.