My last day in Berlin for the year, so I decide to drop by a museum that don’t know thing one about, save for its intriguingly all-encompassing name: Museum der Dinge, the Museum of Things.
Well. Aren’t they all?
Ye-es, technically correct, but the categories that museums typically set for themselves are very, very narrow. Things called “art”, for example. Sometimes just paint-on-canvas sorts of things. Or carved-from-marble sorts of things. Or vacuum cleaners.
So, what to expect from this thing-room tucked away three stories above the hectic, graffitied streets of Berlin’s multi-kulti Kreuzberg neighborhood?
A well-lit, high-ceilinged room with beautiful wooden floors … and a whole lotta shelves.
This museum concerns itself with presenting a sort of mute cultural-historical narrative of Germany’s entire 20th century, from its beginning up to the present day.
The aforementioned shelves are stuffed with a stunningly diverse collection of manufactured objects. Not objets d’art, not objects ‘appropriated’ by an artist, but the kind of innocent every-day objects that you are surrounded with at this very moment.
Your computer. Your pencil. Your coffee cup. Each of these objects captures decisions made by an individual craftsman/designer, a moment in the history of human-created environment, and simultaneously expresses the essence of every “thing” designed and created before it. Ever.
That’s a lot of weight for a coffee cup to handle.
But this museum has the philosophical chops (and history of its own) to make it work.
The Museum der Dinge is the descendant and official archive of the Deutscher Werkbund, pr “German Work Federation”.
The Werkbund, an association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, was formed in 1907 with the express intent of overhauling the entire German landscape of mass-produced objects, “from sofa cushions to the building of cities”.
The fundamental plan was to rethink everything from an aesthetic viewpoint that took function, the essence of materials, and modern industrial manufacturing techniques as its muse.
You know the essential slogan of the Werkbund already: “Form follows function”. And yes, the world famous and extraordinarily influential Bauhaus design school in Weimar grew from these very roots in the early 1920s.
The tension between intelligent, form-follows-function design and the kitsch favoured by mass culture provides a formal structure for the museum.
It’s divided into two major sections. First, a long, high row of shelves runs along one wall, packed to bursting with items selected to reflect the manufactured world as it actually was — and you could easily spend half an hour just gazing at a single shelf! It’s a meticulously arranged riot, and the tastes, prejudices, and technological influences of the era burst from every piece.
This “world of objects” is arranged in chronological order, then further divided into subsets such as “body shapes,” “material/aluminum,” “post-War era,” and “East German household”.
The second section is composed of a series of free-standing cases running down the center of the long room. These are also arranged chronologically, but this time the objects represent opposing sides in a century-old argument.
Half of each case is filled with objects catering to contemporary popular taste, tending towards decoration and kitsch — to which the other side responds with elegantly clean-lined solutions from industrial and graphic designers sympathetic to the Werkbund‘s ideas and ambitions.
But the best part is that you don’t need to know a THING about design history to enjoy this exhibition; on a purely surface level it’s just the coolest, best-organized thrift store you have ever seen.
Conclusions aren’t necessarily drawn, and there’s no predetermined narrative. You can just let the colors, shapes, forms and textures wash over you … or let your brain go to work on the innumerable jarring, inspiring and thought-provoking juxtapositions.
it’s a wonderful experience.
The time-span covered by the collection runs right up to the present day, but the early half of the century attracted most of my attention — particularly the graphic design.
I was delighted to see that my hero Lucian Bernhard, ground-breaking developer of the sachplakat poster style and innovative type designer, is particularly well represented.
And because we’re in Berlin and talking about history, the subject of National Socialism is unavoidable … and here it is, expressed in a kind of embarrassing kitsch that apparently even made the monster on Voßstrasse squirm.
When I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed my couple of hours there, the first thing the smiling guy behind the counter said was “Great — would you mind mentioning it to other people?”
No one I know in Berlin seems to have heard of it, and worse, my explanations of its wonderfulness just haven’t seemed to penetrate: “Uh-huh, sounds interesting …” and then a change of subject.
I hope these photos are a little more effective.
If you’re in Berlin for a day or two, do yourself a favour. They’re open Friday – Monday from 12 -7pm, and it’ll cost you 4 € to get in. Guided tours are available if you’re lucky enough to speak German, but if not — no worries. These objects speak quite clearly on their own.