Museums are important in helping us connect with the past and with historical events – but not all museums are equal. Here, Shannon Bent explains why she thinks Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum, a museum that considers the dark past of the Nazi regime, is an excellent museum.
In my previous article posted here on ‘History is Now’ (here) I spoke about Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known tourist destination in Berlin. I talked about this over-commercialised site, and how completely insensitive and underwhelming I felt the ‘attraction’ was. Funnily enough, a few days ago and around a month after I wrote this article, my Dad handed me a page from the British Daily Mailnewspaper with the headline ‘Mona Lisa? It’s a bit rubbish’. It was a small section on the page and detailed the results of a survey done by the airline ‘easyJet’ about what the most desirable tourist destinations to visit in Europe were. While the Mona Lisa was named the most disappointing, Checkpoint Charlie came in at a close second with 84% of 2,000 Britons polled saying they disliked the site. At the risk of being smug, or using the phrase ‘called it’, I’m hardly surprised. It does, however, further the idea that this site is rather useless at its intention and doesn’t exactly educate or even interest many visitors. I was actually rather pleased to read this; at least quite a few other people actually agree with me and I’m not just overreacting!
Now we’ve seen an instance of failure in the museum sector, perhaps I can offer a view and recommendation for a museum I feel could not be more opposite to the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Situated perhaps less than a five-minute walk apart, this museum to me is a symbol of the right way to do it; an example of how to educate accurately and effectively on a sensitive subject while remaining interesting and respectful: The Topography of Terror.
The Topography of Terror Museum
The building is initially imposing, yet it is not obvious as to what it contains. Situated next to a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, and on the site of the SS central command, this simply curated museum takes the visitors through the chronology of the reign of terror that the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security lead over the people of Germany and beyond during the Second World War. With room for temporary and special exhibitions within the space that remain within the general theme of the museum, this site doesn’t hide anything. The site that it is on also provokes thought. What better way to keep the memory of the horrors inflicted alive than by placing them in a building sat on the area where the headquarters of the main perpetrators once resided. There is something fairly poetic and thought-provoking about this. Furthermore, with the remains of a piece of the Berlin Wall encompassed into the site that you can walk along and see the remnants of the graffiti from those that lived through it, it further serves as a reminder of the humanity caught up in war, and seeks to remind you that you are learning about individual and real people who had to face the horrors that presented themselves to them during both the Second World War and the Cold War. The area is alive with history, and therefore is the perfect place to keep history alive in.
When you first enter the Topography of Terror, I would argue that most would be struck with the expanse of space, cleanliness and I should think some would argue sparsity of the place. The museum is free, something that I always appreciate. So, there is no funnelling towards a desk where they’ll ask for your money and try and sell you an overpriced guide book on top of your tickets. Furthermore, and thankfully, there is no gift shop. I hardly think it would be appropriate to place the SS symbol on a pencil or a tote bag to sell at the end of your visit, so a huge well done to the person that manages to keep the retail and commercialisation issue away. Therefore, upon entrance you are free to roam wherever you wish to begin. Despite this, the fantastic curation of the museum lends itself to naturally leading you in a chronological order through the build up to the Nazi regime and through the Second World War.
I mentioned that it is the fantastic curation that pulls you into a kind of ‘one-way system’ concept around the room, yet the curation is simple. The entire concept is just boards hung from the ceiling, with one main introductory board per section, numbered in order to help the flow. As you can see, it pulls you around each corner and makes you curious for the next board, in a rather morbid way perhaps. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. Just because these subjects are some of the darkest and bloodiest points in history doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Besides, if people are interested, or if it is interesting to them then they are learning about the topic. Ultimately, isn’t this the aim of museums such as the Topography of Terror? Education of these subjects so they shall never be repeated again is of course the main remit of the museum. Consequently, I see no issue with a visitor of this museum finding the content of interest, and with a want to learn more around each information board.
The phrase ‘it pulls no punches’ may be a little insensitive on this subject, but also fairly appropriate. Perhaps one of my favourite things about this museum is it does not seek to hide the facts, or veil them in mystery and inaccuracy. The facts, the stats, the numbers and the photos are clear for everyone to see. It perhaps for some is an overload of information and writing; if you aren’t already interested in the topic then perhaps this isn’t the museum for you. Certainly, it isn’t a museum to bring younger children. They would find it pretty boring, with no interaction or engagement tailored to them. But in my opinion, this isn’t poor planning or curation on the museum’s part. They knew their target audience, and they knew what information they were aiming at who, and in my opinion they have pulled this off very well. The text is simple and fairly broken up into smaller paragraphs, interspersed with many photos of varied sizes. It gives the exhibition variety, but also makes it an information packed display which is of course the overall aim.
The Meaning of the Museum
The reason I wanted to speak about this museum though, is because of its greater meaning. It has been created by the German people in full knowledge of the history of the site that it is sat on, and it is a symbol that they are not afraid of the truth. While a comical concept, there was once a thought of ‘don’t mention the war’ when it came to the countries that were involved. However, this museum shows that education and information does not have to be hidden from its place of origin and removes the concept of guilt or blame and simply seeks to teach so we can learn from mistakes. It baffles me that there was once a thought that Germany should not be open about the crimes that occurred during the Second World War. After all, and I think I can be accurate and agreed with when I say this, the Nazi regime and the extreme SS that came from it were not truly representative of the country or the majority of its people at the time. These days, while neo-Nazism does exist in various countries and that is a terrifying thought, the viewpoint that caused the atrocities that the Topography of Terror details are reserved luckily to a small section of people. This museum proves that the past doesn’t have to be hidden, or glossed over and more to the point can in fact be shown in greater detail to educate as many people as possible.
This museum, and certainly this mindset, is a triumph. I can only hope that this continues and spreads wider. The Topography of Terror achieves what all museums should set out to do; clear and accurate information, accessible to as many people as possible and presented in an intriguing and unique way. Even if the subject matter is difficult and sensitive, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, usually the total opposite. It is these subjects that need to be understood the most, by as many people as possible. Its museums like this one that ensure that it can be understood, so it is never repeated in history again.
I would highly recommend this museum. If you are interested, here is the website and if you are in the area, I would urge you to visit. Let’s keep the knowledge of topics like this and the museums that tell the stories as widely known as possible. Link here.
I hope you can come along with me on this exploration. Don’t hesitate to comment, feedback, and you could even email me for a chat about all this on firstname.lastname@example.org. I would really love people to get involved in this.