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Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

The Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna was the one Dasniya and I intended to visit a few days ago, instead, we veered off to the very good Museo della Storia di Bologna. Today I was wondering which of the few I wanted to see would be the one, and kept coming back to this, despite weird opening hours. It took me until 3pm before I arrived, so some of the exhibitions were closed. I was feeling a little shoddy after yesterday’s performance – mostly tired and in need of low-concentration type activities – so it’s probably for the best.

The archaeological collection available to the public is massive, and concentrates specifically on the Bologna region and city itself, with artefacts dating from 800 000 years ago up till the end of the Western Roman Empire, filling the first floor of the fifteenth-century Palazzo Galvani. Some of the collections are simply hundreds or thousands of similar items – stone arrow heads, decorative clay urns – packed in rows into display cabinets. Unlike the Museo della Storia di Bologna though, it’s not such a good museum if you don’t speak or read Italian. There is an English audio guide, but it’s pretty rubbish; I kept thinking the speaker was about to say more, but, no, and on all but a handful of seemingly randomly selected items he had nothing to say at all. Likewise, there’s a couple of items with English notes, equally seeming selected at random, but these are even fewer than the audio guide, which left me doing an approximate pseudo-translation at first on the copious notes in Italian, then giving up and just staring at decontextualised objects for a couple of hours.

The objects are beautiful and it’s fascinating to see the beginnings of stone tools going from crude hacking to refined blades and heads, then becoming smaller and extraordinarily delicate; the first appearances of bronze and copper, similarly becoming refined and delicate; then with the arrival of the Celts, the first glass, becoming mastered by the time of the Roman Empire. Pottery, glazing, and firing also follow this path, even becoming cruder at one time during mass-production in the Roman era. Of course I especially liked the fully exhumed graves and skeletons displayed in glass-topped coffins (and the head of Athena Lemnia).

It just felt altogether a diminished experience. Almost every item or group of items had at least a paragraph of notes which I was entirely excluded from understanding, and the audio guide, for which I paid an extortionate 4,-€ felt like a thoughtless obligation rather than an object of use, especially next to all the QR codes which seem to be the preferred method of interaction, provided one has a smartphone. For a museum which appears at the top of the list in tourist guides, and despite the quality of the collections, it offers merely superficial, casual, almost careless participation for non-Italian speaking visitors.

As for my understanding of what I was looking at, I’ve done enough reading to have the bones of an idea of the European Palaeolithic, but I’m pretty hopeless at Classical antiquity, and can’t tell Etruscan from Roman; perhaps a good choice for my next subject of study.

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Via di San Luca

Arriving from the airport at the start of January, the day being lightly clouded, we could see a hill south of the city capped with a russet basilica, the Madonna di San Luca. Friday just past, being a day off, I decided I needed something non-museum and outdoors, and all maps led to the Portico di San Luca. It seemed to be about 12km walk from the apartment, foiled by a bus from outside the door which took me to Arco del Meloncello, which is where I thought the Portico began.

Up the hill, ascending 215 metres in around 2km, split between steps and incline. The arches began unexpectedly from number three-hundred-and-something, which committed me to diligently following them back to number one on the way back. It was grey, misty turning to drizzle, turning to rain. Visibility swiftly shrunk to a couple of score metres, and arriving at the last turn, the church hove into view as a hulking apparition, a derelict and holed ship run aground.

On my way up, my companions were few of the penitent kind, and rather more of the technical attire clad who tend to congregate in all places in or near cities where the geography can serve as a test of self, here divided between walkers and runners. Some chose to drive most of the way, and a small few perhaps were there for the original intent.

As for me, I was there for that last arch, 666.

Foiled by ambiguous numbering, which stopped at 658, the remaining arches depending on how counted giving a final total between 664 and 669, I decided the last before the end of the steps was probably the intended, the one with the small door. I also paused on the way down to photograph arch 616, the other number of the beast.

Back at Meloncello I followed the portico all the way back to Porta Saragozza, the south-east city wall gate. Another hour of wandering, finding a market near the theatre and generally ambling along still further porticos, and I was home.

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Museo della Storia di Bologna

The day after opening Parsifal, and I couldn’t even persuade myself to sleep in, so … To the Museums!

Unlike Berlin, where I live and know a reasonable amount about the city, Bologna is entirely new to me (ok, besides spaghetti bolognese). Indeed, this is my first time in Italy. I suppose this means I experience a museum in this city more as it is intended: an educational summary of a specific topic. Dasniya and I decided to go to the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, but it seemed it would close not long after we got there. Across from Piazza del Francia we passed the Palazzo Pepoli, containing the Museo della Storia di Bologna, one of several museums that are part of Genus Bologniae. Open until 7pm and barely 2pm, we decided it would be a perfect choice for an hour or two. It was nearly closing by the time we left. I think the sheer number of photos I took and the number that ended up here illustrate what a fine time both Dasniya and I had.

This is the museum of the history of Bologna, and it goes back to the Etruscans, around 700BCE, when it was known as Felsina. It was also the city of Cassini, the Cassini, a satellite bearing his name orbiting now around Mars, who was a remarkable astronomer at a time of revolution in the field. This, and the art of building time-pieces (along with mercantile families and their ventures, and the famous university) is what the museum is built around. The Palazzo Pepoli of the family Pepoli dates back around 800 years, and while the museum doesn’t cover them as much as I’d have liked, it did devote the last exhibit in the formal dining hall to a series of 11 busts made in the 17th century of generations of women from the family, each of them spectacular in their own right.

I took an audio guide again, after my very good experience with one at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum a couple of weeks ago. It was a good decision, as all the exhibits are in Italian, though they also have information sheets in several languages in every room; the audio guide really adds a fantastic amount. It’s tempting to go through each room as a recollection here, but I think the photos capture something of that, and it’s sufficient to say I understand the city I’m working in far better than I did a few hours ago and have fallen into something of a love affair with the place, and Italy.

So, some flat notes amidst what is one of the most splendid museums set in one of the most beautiful city palaces I’ve ever been in. Despite the Pepoli women mentioned above, it’s unavoidable the museum gives a wide berth to the role of women in the history of the city. Even in the contemporary section, where 48 Bolognese are interviewed, only 5 of them are women; barely clearing 10%. Otherwise, it’s a sausage-fest, which is a pity, as the Pepoli women prove, the city has a history at least as long their family in which women play a central role.

The other, which coming from Berlin could never have been gotten away with in that city, was the exhibit (about a fifth of one of the 35 rooms) covering the Second World War. Or rather, “Liberata. Risorgere! Ai vittoriosi” “Liberation. Rise again! For the victorious”. No mention of Italian collaboration, fascism, Jews sent to concentration camps, just, “April 1945! Yay! … Oh, and the city was heavily bombed … Sad city is sad …” In Germany a museum would probably end up in prison for historical revisionism.

Besides that, this is a brilliant museum, varied and stimulating, beautifully laid out, so much attention to detail and the creative display of exhibits (a red Ducati next to a Roman chariot in the exhibit on the Roman Via Emilia trunk road!). I feel delightfully spoilt, and a little worried; if all museums here are so good going back to Berlin is going to be a torment.

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The Last Week of Parsifal Rehearsals

Last night was the second of two full dress rehearsals. While waiting for the curtain call, we celebrated with third Act pizza in the dressing room. This rehearsal period, a mere two weeks actually in the theatre has passed almost too quickly to become philosophical about the whole working process; I have had the occasional thought though, and perhaps these will achieve bloghood in the coming days. In the meantime, skin and the rest is enjoying two days off from the wigs, white bodypaint, ropes, long days of warming up and preparing for the twenty-five-ish minutes we are actually on-stage. Andrew is here, Anna is here, a couple of others round out the original cast; we have a new Klingsor who is a delight, Valentina and Gianni as stage managers who are also a joy to work with, a great, friendly crew who live on some of the best coffee I have tasted, which at 70¢ a cup is also the cheapest, a new conductor who makes it his own, and altogether it’s not merely a remount and going through the steps. Some photos I was thinking of saving ’til we open, but I’ve seen other photos elsewhere, so, here is something of the last few days.

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A Day of Bologna Tourism

A day off from rehearsals today, and Monday plus the religious holiday Epiphany means no museums are open, so it’s off for a wander around Bologna to see some porticos, churches, terracotta colours, window shutters, more churches, more porticos, some excellent doors, not many trees at all, a lot of alleys and winding streets, a couple of city gates, quite a few relatively new-ish modernist buildings which are in sense architecturally identical to the old ones and are well-tasty in that high, internationalist modernism way, churches again, various small religious icons of the Mary (with or without Jesus) variety embedded in façades competing with plaques and coats of arms for quantity, and finally the grand Piazza Maggiore where I met Dasniya for coffee and cake while sitting outside Palazzo Re Enzo. Very tourist, me.

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BER-BOL

The last time I really saw a good chunk of mountains out the window from a plane was at night crossing the Rockies north in Canada on my way to Beijing. Since then somehow I’ve alway skirted them, or not had a window seat. Window seat today, and straight across the Suisse Alps in their fattest place, coming out slightly west of Bassano del Grappa, east of which is a superb fault line splitting the plain in a pair of parallel ridges.

Berlin Tegel to Bologna, one of my favourite big city airports to a city and country I’ve never been to before. We had pizza for dinner. It was not very good, yet also very good as much food can be when it’s evening and the previous meal was breakfast. Dasniya, Jorgos, and I are here for Parsifal, joined this time by Bonnie, who is in the apartment above us. Tomorrow is our first day in the theatre, though we’ve been rehearsing since the second week of December. Blogging in the coming weeks will be attempted. In the meantime, photos taken through thick, variously tinted, scratched, greasy, dirty glass.

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Musikinstrumenten-Museum

It’s Museum Sunday again! Almost didn’t make it there, and once I arrived, almost didn’t make it in. About to leave and a phone call from a non-German number. It’s Emile, in Melbourne! I said, “But your number’s not Australian. Prove you’re there, speak in an Australian accent.” Well, not quite, but he did describe Balaclava, The Wall, and all my favourite East St Kilda stuff, so I believe him.

The Musikinstrumenten-Museum closes at a mere 17h, so by the time I’d promised to join him for a coffee at The Wall next year, I barely had enough time to bike to Potsdamer Platz before getting kicked out. Once in, I was met by one of those genuinely horrible ‘guards’ who would not let me in with my bag, despite my utter lack of an extra Euro for a locker. Luckily an equally and oppositely genuinely nice person at the ticket office not only lent me the necessary Euro, but gave me a set of headphones and an audio guide.

Normally I haven’t been bothering with the audio guides, but Emile had said something like, “It’d be great to hear all the instruments,” so with him in mind, I did. Also in mind was the delightful Michael Garza, Principal Bassoon in the Guangzhou Orchestra, who, when visiting Berlin in 2008/9-ish had made this one of his museum visits. The museum isn’t huge, but with the audio often being quite comprehensive, it’s another one that would probably take a full day to get through.

The Sonderausstellung then, Valve. Brass. Music: 200 Jahre Ventilblasinstrumente, or 200 years of brass instruments. And shy, never putting itself forward Berlin is the place where not one, but two musicians —Heinrich Stölzel, and Friedrich Blühmel – invented two different approaches around 1814 for valves for horn instruments. The exhibition has around 150 examples spanning the two centuries and they are a joy to behold.

It’s like rampant, wild, unfettered experimental evolution. Brass instruments now have settled down more-or-less into recognisable forms, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, horns, tubas, but back then, it reminds me of the very weird life in the sunless ocean trenches, pipes and valves multiplying, twisting back on themselves like clumps of barnacles, or curlicues and fronds, things that look improbable or completely different species, have broken off the evolutionary path and gone wandering into all kinds of madness. Double bell euphoniums, trumpets like conjoined triplets of steam-engines, over-the-shoulder bugles, a tenor trombone like the plumbing from a small building, delicate Aida trumpets as long as spread arms with a single twist and one valve, oval Wagner (yes, him) tubas … the inventiveness is hilarious and beautiful.

Does it signify that instruments as they have become are the most perfect, or perhaps the most useful, most dextrous, capable of occupying multiple niches, unlike the singular lifeforms of their distant predecessors? I have no idea for an answer, as this museum I approach very much as an outsider. Coming with Michael, or someone knowledgeable would certainly be an advantage.

I left brass flying in arcs and curves across the walls like migrating birds and found myself with the hammers that hit metal strings, pianos, clavichords, harpsichords … strings that are sawed at with bows or plucked with fingers, wooden tubes with holes blown down through a reed, all also showing their exuberant, multifarious origins and offspringings. Some old bassoons also. And a couple of new things, including a peculiar proto-synthesiser.

The keyboard instruments were particularly beautiful, given such wide expanses of flatness onto which whole forests and meadows were painted. One Tafelklavier from 1791, though devoid of ornamentation was quite the most cheerful and happy sounding thing in the whole place. Then there was another with a horrifying battle scene painted along the underside of its lid, so when opened for some nice Baroque entertainment, the audience could also enjoy a weeping man, another man perishing beneath his fallen mount, and an army of others swinging sharp objects at each other. And then there was the traveller’s harpsichord, very cleverly built in three folding pieces, and formerly owned by Sophia Charlotte – the good friend of Gottfried Leibniz – who gifted to her grandson, Frederick the Great, a composition of whose, played on the instrument can be heard.

As with many, if not all of the museums I’ve seen recently, the Musikinstrumenten-Museum focusses on Germany in general, and Berlin in particular, with the other countries historically having close relationships with the lands that became Germany somewhat represented, mostly in respect to an instrument’s history, like Sophia Charlotte’s Paris-built harpsichord. Instruments outside of Europe (where Europe is bounded by seas on three sides and doesn’t extend much further east than a line drawn from the Adriatic to the Baltic) feature not at all. Perhaps it’s the wrong city for this, but I would dearly loved to have seen a musical instrument museum filled also with ouds, gamelans, didgeridoos, something of an ethnomusicological museum, rather than one which ventured little from the classical instruments which form today’s orchestras, the evolutionary successes, so to speak.

It occurred to me also, while early in the Valve. Brass. Music exhibition, that there were considerable similarities between what I was looking at in a musical instrument, and what I’d seen in the Deutsches Technikmuseum: ship engines, trumpets; same application of technology, different end. A couple of instruments later (I tend to wander exhibitions in inappropriate order and direction), the descriptions, patents, schematics around the original valve designs also noted that they were inspired by inventions in engineering and the industrial revolution. From that, and seeing the proto-synthesisers at the dawn and early years of the computer age, it seemed clear that music uses the newest technology of the day to manufacture new instruments, new sound, new compositions, new ways of playing, and has done so for as long as there has been technology. A museum then, of these interrelationships is what’s implied, a kind of museum of the philosophy of technology and its applications, not divided into technology and industry over there, and art and music over here. Conversely, this predicts and describes where music will come from next, probably most immediately a combination of mapping massive datasets and 3D printing. Definitely 3D printing is going to change music, especially when printing metal and composite materials becomes common.

Ah, but there’s so many beautiful instruments to see and hear, really, it’s a joy; one of those lesser-known museums that is entirely worth seeing. Photos, then:

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Topographie des Terrors

Somewhere I’d read the desert of stone around Topographie des Terrors was composed of greywacke, one of my favourite rocks, but I think that was perhaps an inventive mistranslation. Still, the grounds of the museum are blanketed in it, when not forested.

Two weeks ago I went to the Jüdisches Museum and managed to formulate some thoughts on it while talking with Isabelle, who asked me if I’d been to Topographie des Terrors. Following my entirely indiscriminate approach to Museum Sundays, I couldn’t think of another that seemed more likely, so this afternoon, after lunch in with Dasniya and Florian in our kitchen (harhar if you know our kitchen), I was on my bike southwards.

I like the Bundesministerium der Finanzen, formerly the Reichsluftfahrtministerium, but then I’ve always had a fondness for that particular style of modernist architecture, despite its habitual association with fascism. Perhaps it’s just the time it emerged in, though I think equally there is a mentality in its aesthetics that corresponds with that period of industrialised, colonial nationalism. It’s just across the road from a stretch of the wall and Martin Gropius Bau, where I’ve been a couple of times, and juts oppressively over the remnant slabs of wall, windows all mean and small, hammered into battlement stone slabs like prison cells.

Unlike the utter absence of people in the reaches not around the wall, this section of the museum was heavily populated with people photographing themselves in front of the barrier. It’s somewhat bizarre a choice of holiday snaps.

I liked the barrenness of the grounds. It’s about as close as one can get to a fitting response to what happened in the buildings that were once here while remaining apprehensible by visitors. To salt and poison the earth and render it hostile to all who tread it, then wall it in, or gouge it out and blast the sandy Berlin geology until it melts would also be equivalent acts of memorial. It’s also good to arrive in winter, when the light is dim and listless, visibility is washed out by fog and mist, colour only comes from greyness, and cold and damp accompany.

Formerly this was a block containing the School of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Prinz-Albrecht Palais and gardens, Europahaus, other buildings of Art Nouveau and the Kaiserreich along wealthy streets of the same. And now it is stripped bare. I followed the outside path first, short biographies of the buildings which once stood where nothing now remains, photographs of the edifices, dates when the Nazis moved in. It grew dark by the time I arrived at the air raid shelter dug by slave labour of political prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Political prisoners meant largely communists, Die Rote Kapelle, liberals and intellectuals, artists, and either in combination or separately, homosexuals.

After and during Jüdisches Museum I was angry, enraged. Topologies des Terrors imparts a dull numbness. It is the lifeless grey stone of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium at dusk in winter, bereft of the living, of trees, greenness. It’s hollowed out and empty. There are many Nazis though, and they all are laughing.

I didn’t take many photos inside; it felt distasteful, like carrying the corpse of a rat out to the rubbish. What could I photograph anyway? The laughing Nazis? They were always smiling and full of life, especially when on holiday from murder. Their victims? Hanging broken-necked from trees and lampposts, starved to skeletons, kneeling or showing their back about to be shot, the moment of the shot, tumbled into graves. The numbers? Always numbers, columns, instructions, lists, documents, stamps, signatures, plans, orders. Does the number “11 million” mean something, signify something, declare something worse, more horrific than the 6 million the SS got away with? Jews that is. A document with a line-item: Jüden: 11.000.000. Or what of the plans for Lebensraum? More than double that figure. And the architecture. The Palais, the hotels, the studios of the Kunstgewerbemuseum the other edifices bounded by four streets, all turned from their original use to this.

Two photographs from inside. One is a map of the Reich in June, 1937. It documents those arrested in that month, stamped in red, ”Geheim!” The key: Communists, Social Democrats, Enemies of the State, Catholics … Jews … Homosexuals has small coloured circles next to each. Homosexuals get a circle with a black cross. 102 arrested in Berlin for the month of June. Gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual? It doesn’t indicate though other documents and photographs imply it was gay men; lesbians being more pliant and less of a threat to the state.

The other is titled ”Kennzeichen für Schutzhäftlinge in den Konz.-lagern” – “ID markers for Protective Custody Prisoners in Concentration Camps”. The top row lists: Political, Professional Criminal, Emigrant, Jehovah’s Witness, Homosexual, Work-shy (a catch-all for Roma, pacifists, lesbians, prostitutes, mentally ill, homeless, anarchists …); the left column indicates: Base Colour, Recidivists, Penal Labour, Markings for Jews.

A Jewish holocaust scholar said, in his criticism of the memorial to gay and lesbian victims of Nazis, among other things that it was only German homosexuals the Nazis persecuted; that it was political. He does not say there were no Jewish queers, though there is little need to as the manicuring of history which has placed Jewish identity at the centre of the holocaust has simultaneously diminished or denied their existence. So here we see a combination insignia: a yellow triangle overlaid with a pink triangle, for Homosexuelle Jüden.

Unlike the Jüdisches Museum, Topographie des Terrors does document the genocide against other groups and locate them within the overarching structure of Nazi racial purity. Perhaps what is critical here is the statelessness of the victims. Whether Jewish, Roma, Homosexual, Slavic, all are groups of significant number, and all had (or have) a lack of statehood. Statehood for queers sounds laughable, a logical fallacy, a misunderstanding of what a state is. Yet Jews were German, they were not a special case of German or some fiendish Other. To say otherwise is only possible if one declares exactly and precisely what constitutes a German, and adheres to a line of thinking that by elimination leads directly to the gas chamber. Through the removal of statehood from a person or group of people, committing acts of violence is no longer a question in the domain of philosophy or ethics; it is simply one of bureaucracy and accounting.

There were some Brazillian football players in town to play against Bayern Münich, they asked me to take a photo of them in front of the wall while holding up their team’s flag.

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Jüdisches Museum

This was on Sunday, my regular weekly journey to one of Berlin’s hundreds of museums and art galleries. Alas, my webhost decided to trash one of their servers, and between recovering from that and all the rest of the week, it’s now Friday and my memory is crystallised; the immediate thoughts and emotions running over the same paths until ruts form and possibilities for other considerations become faint.

This is a troubling museum. I was angry at someone, and wanted to take that anger out on them. Anyone, preferably German, though Jewish would also suffice. Someone responsible for this; responsible also for forgetting and repeating.

My first visit to it when I was newly arrived in Berlin was an act of encompassing: I didn’t go in because of the queue. When I was a student, I’d bought a large monograph on Daniel Libeskind and the architecture of this Jüdisches Museum, so I found wandering outside was a thing in itself. Having now been inside, it seems two different things. In places the exterior breaks forth into the interior, but never as stark or clear. Often it feels too busy and demanding: there are arrows on the floor determining the correct path to take, as usual, I missed them and saw everything counter-clockwise.

People are very solemn at first. The stairs lead down to underground. The way forward is both uphill and tilted, or warped. The architecture is banal here, it reminds me of Hanna Arendt writing on Eichmann and how utterly mediocre his thinking was, his acts were, the blandness of an office from where murder was issued. I’m not sure this is intentional here, and despite what Libeskind says about his work being open to interpretation, there is much that is very deliberate yet also in other places unfulfilled.

This is a Jewish museum, a German Jewish museum. It is not a history of Jews or Jewishness in its entirety, it is centered on land that became Germany as well as neighbouring countries, and as time passes the focus narrows onto Germany and Berlin.

I was reading a letter that had been smuggled out of Auschwitz when a school group broke into laughter as one of them said something. I only caught, “… transvestites … ” and the laughter. Here is one I wanted to take my anger out on. The idiocy of not understanding; of not caring to understand. It is precisely and only because we begin by laughing at those who are different that we can later murder them. This the museum does not teach the visitor, perhaps because the stating the conceptual leap is too troubling for a country (Germany) that regards certain members in the same language (Turkish, Roma), or for another country (Israel) that treats people in the same way (Palestinian, Bedouin).

I went to the Holocaust place. The dead end. After the confined, low-ceiling blandness of the paths before, the cold, dark void I found peaceful. Once I was alone in there and my eyes adjusted, I could see the play of weak light from high above shape the space. Standing beneath it and looking back, small holes in the facing wall looked out to the garden, too high for eyes to see through. The sound was sharp and precise. I clapped my hands and like a gun firing the strike echoed for half a minute. A sound to meditate by.

Again, a simple reading is possible, yet I am not so grim a nihilist to think that there is not some peace intended to be experienced here, also in the garden outside. The bleakness suits winter.

Out and up the stairs. The architecture of this progression is also exclusive. For those without legs to walk the stairs, it is not possible to follow the axis of continuation, nor to experience the museum as it expects.

Arriving at the top it is a relief. There are spices, colours, smells. I find a reproduction of a 14th century illumination, teaching children the alphabet by baking each letter into a biscuit, because knowledge is sweet and beyond all else important. This is something I can feel an affinity for. Later there is an etching of darling, dear Spinoza, not a minor philosopher at all. Also a Torah for children, as drawn by a renaissance xkcd. There are messages on the wall though, creeping into vision. Kant says, “They are nowaday vampires of society” …

The language again. It is language I hear now from people I would assume understand words and what they are saying. Of course, because they utter them against immigrants, asylum seekers, Roma, Turkish, Muslims, it is ok. The police standing on guard at every Jewish building in Berlin remind us that Berlin, Germany, Europe does not understand what it will never forget.

The 20th century, then. Almost a return trip to the Deutsches Technikmuseum, and what was perhaps not clearly mentioned there is certainly here: that Jews were at the front of industrialisation, modernisation, innovation, art, culture. And I am angry again. That they let this happen. They, Germans, Jews, Europeans. Sometimes I want to punch the city of Berlin itself, but I have also seen photographs of Berlin from above in 1945 to know the city did that task to itself. And I am angry at that too.

China. Shanghai. When I said this is a German Jewish museum, it is what is absent that frames what is here. The persecution for hundreds of years pushed them into travelling. There are Jews in China, converted hundreds of years ago who follow a memory of Jewishness. There were tens of thousands of refugees in Shanghai and Chongqing. I photographed some of the illustrations of this, an entire story in itself. There is also land in northern China that for a small moment in time could have become Israel.

The word ambivalent is perhaps the closest I can find to this pull of contradictions, to also the presentation of a single narrative of Jewishness. What is missing? Where are the wealthy Jews who signed away the lives of the poorer, who were absolutely complicit in murder? Where are the heterosexual Jews who persecuted the gay, lesbian, transgender ones? Certainly the latter have “their own” museum, as if there were no cock-sucking, pussy-licking, cross-dressing Jews. Them and us.

There is a photograph of Heinz Joachim and Marianne Prager, Jewish Communist resistance fighters. They are in a clearing in a forest, he is kneeling on a blanket, she standing. His arms are around her waist, she has one on her shoulder. He looks up into her eyes, they are smiling, laughing. He is wearing a short-sleeved gingham dress, and she a man’s dark suit, jacket and trousers. They were murdered in 1942, both 23 years old, two years after this photo. There is no remark made on their clothing or why they were wearing it, their identities are both present and erased.

The museum winds back on itself. After the dead-end of the holocaust, it becomes a green room, dressed in artificial grass, warm golden light. The people after. There are cubes lit from within on poles, like saplings, each has a photograph of a person and a short biography. One says, “ … and when my father in Palestinian exile, witnessed how the expelled began doing the expelling, he wrote: ‘The swastika is twining around the Star of David …’”

I can’t say anymore. Like the museum going back on itself – to exit I have to go back down the stairs, through the basement, glance at the path to the holocaust once more – my thoughts go back on themselves, worrying and pulling at themselves. I want to say this is pathetic, hundreds of years of culture and all that is shown is religion and death. One exhibit is the Brit milah, circumcising the baby boy. Ritual genital mutilation is another way of putting it. There is no commentary on how some secular and religious Jews find this act disturbing. There is scant room for discussion of this in Germany because any criticism becomes itself criticised for anti-semiticism. It’s possible what I write now, what I think now would be defined as anti-semetic.

At last there is a separate exhibition of a photographer. The first image is that of a woman. I haven’t written of how frequently and how clearly conscious and matter-of-fact the place of the women who appear in this exhibition, from the ceramic artists who are the first exhibits encountered, to the long biography of a Jewish merchant woman, to this last image, Hannah Arendt.

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Mitte Museum Berlin

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.