on March 4, 2012
Also known as the ‘Mauermuseum’, the ‘Museum am Haus Checkpoint Charlie’ is one of Berlin’s most popular tourist attractions. It’s so popular, in fact, that there was a long queue stretching outside the doors and down the street when we visited on a freezing Saturday in December. The museum looks at the history of the Berlin Wall, why it was built, how it affected the lives of the people of Berlin and how desperate people tried to get over the wall to escape from ‘the east, and how the wall came to be torn down. It’s housed in a building that overlooks Checkpoint Charlie, one of the fortified gates between the two sides of the city, and which was itself a place where escape plans were hatched and sometimes executed. The museum is on Friedrichstrasse within walking distance of Unter den Linden and close to several tram and U-bahn stations. It’s literally right beside where the wall cut through the city, at the site of the famous Checkpoint Charlie. There’s a guards' kiosk at the road junction and nowadays paid actors in vintage uniforms pose for photographs in front of the barricades. 'Ostalgia' is big business and the queues reflect this. There's a fenced off plot on the corner and the walls have been used for an exhibtion about the Berlin Wall. It's actually really comprehensive with interesting texts and lots of excellent photographs but it's not part of the museum and if you take the time to view all of the panels, as we did, you'll find that much of this information (and also the photographs) is repeated in the museum. You might even be tempted to skip the museum altogether, so good is the al fresco display, but the museum does contain a lot of excellent exhibits that bring the story of Berlin alive. The museum was originally housed in a small apartment on Bernauer Strasse but it moved to Friedrichstrasse in 1963. It overlooked Checkpoint Charlie and became a haven for escape assisters and offered practical support to escapees. This building is partly accessible for wheelchair users but I wouldn't much fancy being at sitting height as not only are there so many people, many of the information boards and illustrations are placed high up. In one part there was a display that went up the stairs and even over the stairs: this was really awkward to look at and made progress up the stairs slow and possibly dangerous. Audio guides are available but all exhibits are captioned in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and other languages. If you know almost nothing about the Berlin Wall this is a very good place to come to find out about it. If, on the other hand, it's a subject already know but would like to learn more about, then the abundance of detail such as first person accounts of people who managed to escape over the wall should prove interesting. Both positions, however, have their drawbacks because there is so much information here. Those who know very little about the subject might feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of material, while those who already know a bit might feel that it's diffcult to work through see past all the stuff they already know to find the little treasures that enhance the story.The story begins around around at the end of World War 2, setting the scene by explaining how the country and its capital came to be divided among the occupying powers. Although emigration from the eastern bloc countries in general had been tightly controlled, Berlin was an irritating loophole for the authorities. Young people, and especially those in professions such as engineering, teaching and law, were leaving in droves and the East German government needed to take action to stem the tide.One of the things the exhibition does really well is to explain how quick the appearance of the wall was. Quite literally, the people of Berlin woke to find this physical barrier dividing their city. On 13th August 1961 the Russians erected a barbed wire fence along the border; two days later work on the wall proper commenced. Without warning familes were separated and people cut off off from their places of work. In some tragic cases people who had been visiting family or friends in the east or west of the city found themselves unable to return home. There are some fascinating transcripts of people who were affected in this way. Between 1961 when the wall was built, and 1989 when the people of Berlin took back their city there were many successful and many unsuccessful attempts to escape over (and often under) the wall. The majority of people were fleeing East Berlin, a small number tried to get into the East. Some of the attempts at escape were ill conceived and doomed to fail, others were highly ingenious and some were so good that those people who made a career from helping people escape were able to employ them time after time. The exhibition includes some original items that were used in escapes - cars with hidden compartments in which someone might squeeze in to be driven over the border, human catapults, forged passports and even a homemade flying machine. The exhibition highlights the case of the Wetzels and Strlzycks, two families that managed to float over the wall in a homemade hot air balloon. Anotherinteresting display looks at attempts to escape by tunnel, in particular one in the basement of a house in Westerstrasse which was the most successful of all the attempts to tunnel under the border; an incredible 29 people were able to flee using this escape route. The display includes photographs of the family members that lived there and explains how the tunnel was built. It is just one of many examples that can be seen in this museum of the creativity and courage of ordinary people in pursuit of freedom. The founder of the museum, Rainer Hildebrandt, wanted it to be more generally dedicated to 'International non-violent protest' and additional displays include individual exhibits such as a pair of sandals that belonged to Gandhi (who must have been well shod as I am sure I've seen numerous items of his footwear on my travels), the death mask of Russian dissident Andrei Sacharov and the 'Charta 77 typewriter' (Charter 77 was a Czech movement that was in existence between 1976 and 1992 and counted among its founding members Vaclav Havel. It's aim was to highlight the non observance of human rights and it worked hard to ensure it could not be attacked by the authorities by always remaining just inside the stringent laws on organised opposition to the goverment.) While these are certainly rather symbolic items you can comfortably skip this section of the museum if you are short on time. I've given only an overview of the contents of the exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie; there are several floors and room after room of material and to view it all in any detail would take the best part of a day. Unfortunately the rather dated presenation of the exhibits makes it difficult to be selective in what to look at and with its text heavy content (combined with the number of people trying to look at the same stuff), visiting this museum is hard work. The same black and white boards and uniform text are used throughout and really need replacing and updating. There's a lot of repetition and the amount of exhibits could be pared back to improve the visitor experience. The museum curators could benefit from the old saying that 'less is more'. This museum covers a lot of the ground that other museums and outdoor exhibitions cover. At the full price of €12.50 it's certainly not expensive in terms of the most popular attractions in European capital cities but when you see how old and shabby the building and the displays materials are you have to wonder, with so many people coming through the doors every day, what exactly they're doing wth the money. The Berlin WelcomeCard will get you a reduction of 25% off the admission price.While these premises are right beside Checkpoint Charlie and therefore at the heart of the subject, you could argue that the exhibition has outgrown its home. Access is difficult even for able bodied people, and there's just too much material for the space available. You could learn just as much from the exhibition of photographs on the hoardings on the street outside the museum or at several other points along the site of the wall. Don't be too disappointed if you don't see this museum. Yes, it does have some really good individual exhibits but it is simply too crowded to be really enjoyable.
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