Checkpoint Charlie, or what a modern history museum should not look like

First timers in Berlin cannot leave again without having set eyes on Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of Berlin’s border crossing points at the times of the Cold War. It is one of those ‘must sees’, if you haven’t been to Checkpoint Charlie, you haven’t really been to Berlin. Site of many a historical event, the current guard house is a replica of what the border crossing looked like in 1961, when the Berlin Wall was erected. It is guarded by two uniformed ‘border guards’, who happily pose with the tourists roaming around in the area. So far so good.

Right next to Checkpoint Charlie we find the Berlin Mauer Museum or Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, that started out as a private museum right after the erection of the Wall. It is one of the most visited museums in Germany, with almost a million visitors per year – according to Wikipedia. It is also one of the most confusing museums I have ever seen.

Now I have a background in history, with as specialization 20th century history. The Cold War period is not exactly my field, as my expertise does not really go much beyond 1945, but I know a thing or two about the period anyway. And even for me it was unclear what exactly this museum was about. It started with a whole lot of context (taking up approx. 1/3 of the museum), then shifted to the Berlin Wall (another 1/3 of the museum), and then continued with a lot of random things – from freedom struggles in Eastern Europe to India, Syrian refugees and Picasso’s Guernica (final 1/3 of the museum). In short, confusion reigned.

The actual part about the wall was disappointingly small, as most of the Wall Museum wasn’t about the Wall itself. I however enjoyed the personal stories of people who escaped East Berlin by ingenious plans a lot: from reconstructing a car and taking flying lessons to smuggling people in suitcases and swimming across the river. These were the better stories of course, as over a hundred people also died trying to cross the Wall. I would have liked to learn more about their motivations, but the Wall Museum was rather silent on that. To make up for that I bought a book of considerable size with biographies of those who died.

Which brings me to my next point of critique: a museum should be a museum and a book should be a book. It is like men and women: however equal, the two are not the same. The curator of this museum seemed not to share my opinion on the matter though, as he/she tried to fit as much text in one museum as possible. Now a little bit of background never harmed anyone, but if I want to read a book on history I take a book, and I don’t go to a museum. Whole walls covered with extensive text and a few photos is not the way to go about. It is boring and dull. When I go to a museum I want to see more objects or photos than text, and not the other way around.

Chronology has its charms as well btw. Now first dealing with the establishment of the NATO and then with the war that was supposed to be the reason for the NATO to be established, that does not make a lot of sense, does it? If it doesn’t make a sense to a professional European historian, how on earth is the ordinary visitor from halfway across the world (like my dear Egyptian companion) supposed to make sense of all that?

Now of course there are some good things about the museum as well. It shows free movies throughout the day and there are lectures on Wall-related topics. It does attempt to be more than just a museum about the Berlin Wall period, incorporating some East bloc history and the contemporary period as well. But before dealing with special exhibitions, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to look at your permanent exhibition, dear curator? I came out largely disappointed, unfortunately.

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