We visit museums to anthropomorphise engineering. “aiaiaiai! What are you doing? Nononono!!”
It’s Sunday, so Frances is going to museums! This time with a companion, Dasniya, and to the museum closest to my bed that I know of: Mitte Museum Berlin. The Mitte Museum is one of twelve of the Berliner Regionalmuseen, each covering one of the city’s Verwaltungsbezirk – administrative districts – its history, culture, people, and is just around the corner in Pankstr. I’ve biked past it for years and now that I have my regular weekend museum visit project it was obvious to be one of the first.
I don’t have any plan of which museum I’ll go to next; it sort of emerges in the course of the week, random passings-by spurring my interest or random remark from someone. Today was a very lazy start to the day so it befitted the tempo that I would choose not one of the imperial monsters, rather try something quotidian.
The museum itself is spread over three floors and several rooms. It would be possible to whirl through it in 20 minutes but the reading is as important as the looking and a leisurely 3-4 hours is worth it. The ground floor contains the Mitte-Tiergarten-Wedding timeline going from 12th Century ’til today, and the Alltag, daily life in Wedding around 100 years ago for a working class family living in a Hinterhof, following the work of the mother. They sleep seven to a small room, she is up first, cooking, then once the father is off to work and children departed does the clothes washing (by hand, boiling the water with a fire), cleaning, then off to the market to buy potatoes and bread, returning home to earn some extra income sewing for the garment industry, then cooking dinner – those potatoes, before more cleaning while husband sods off to down some Schnapps at the Kneipe. Sleep and repeat. This leads off to the pre- and post-war housing reform, renovation of Altbau and the building of the Neubau. One of my favourite housing projects in Berlin, the Afrikanische Str Viertel which I thought was ’40s early high modernism but turns out was built in the ’20s.
The first floor contains the various histories of the land and its use, from the days of Gesundbrunnen being just that, a health spa, to the height of the industrial age when it was wall-to-wall factories and squalid apartments, the post-war demolition and rebuilding, and the post-boom years dwindling of the same factories, putting thousands out of work and preparing those factories for occupation by artists such as we in the Uferhallen.
One room was devoted to the culture of the district, especially that of the revue theatres, from Friedrichstadt-Palast to the sadly destroyed Lichtburg, the vast 2000-seat theatre where Marlene Dietrich once played, now replaced by the equally vast yet wholly mediocre Gesundbrunnen mall at the Bahnhof. I thought this could be an exhibition in itself: the history of Berlin’s theatres, which then made me wonder just how many theatres are there in Berlin? Proper theatres, that is; not converted factories or other repurposed sites, but ones that were built for stage and live productions.
Amongst this all were maps, photographs, documents, dioramas (I especially liked the one of Barricade Wedding, a pitched gun battle in the 19th century between army and revolutionaries); the history of Red Wedding is another that deserves its own exhibition. Also quite surprised to find that Luisenbad and its gardens were right around the corner, more-or-less where the Library is today. And there was a massive immigration of Huguenots in the 16th century during their religious persecution. Perhaps not quite enough on the Turkish history here, considering they make up close to 1 in 5 of the population of Wedding and Gesundbrunnen. Oh, and a lot of breweries.
Lastly there are books, various histories of Wedding, which like all books in this city are improbably cheap and simply encourages profligacy. Also there is a donation box, because the Mitte Museum Berlin is entirely free.
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.
Asian Labour News is a source of labour issues in China and Southern Asia which is daily read for me, which at times seems to be an endless roll-call of deaths and injuries in mines and other shoddy industrial practices. They have just published China: A summary of labour-related news for July 2004, and maybe it’s not all grim.
It’s hard sometimes to see beyond the tragedies, but a story in China Energy Online that mentioned Chai Jiumao, Managing director of the Shanxi Fenxi Mining Group, provides some small glimmer of hope. Chai said his company has invested more than 100 million yuan in 2002 and 2003 to install safety equipment such as gas monitoring and controlling system for its new coal mines. The Beijing Morning News announced, also, that the city aimed to eliminate small coal mines with poor safety conditions and frequent accidents. Later in the month, Beijing News announced that the city would in fact close all township and village coal mines by 2010.
In further positive news, Beijing announced it would develop a rescue centre for workplace safety, mining and dangerous chemicals. Specialised rescue teams for construction and chemical accidents will be set up and given specialized training.