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Checking Out Charlie
Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (Berlin, Germany)
Member Name: collingwood21
Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (Berlin, Germany)
Advantages: Some fascinating and unique objects; The stories of escape over the Wall, Long opening hours
Disadvantages: Quite expensive, Not good for younger children
Dr Haim Ginott once said that "children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression." If you think back to what events or experiences made the biggest impression on you, I bet most (if not all) of them happened when you were a child. One of my most memorable experiences happened on a family outing when I was aged 10, and can't have lasted for more than a few minutes. When Granada Television opened their studio tour in Manchester in 1988, the tour originally started off by taking you on a bus through a mock-up of Checkpoint Charlie, before heading down Baker Street and ending up in Coronation Street (the checkpoint set was later removed, shortly after the Wall came down the following year). While the rest of that day trip has long since faded from memory, I can remember quite clearly the reconstruction of the checkpoint and the soldiers coming on the bus to look for any "escapees" amongst the visitors. I can also remember my dad saying how well done it was; I later found out that he has passed through the real checkpoint in the late 1960s following a visit to East Germany. Why has this memory stayed with me so clearly when countless others had long since faded? Perhaps it was because at age 10 I just couldn't get my head around why such an experience was necessary simply to travel from one part of a city to another.
The real Checkpoint Charlie, I was later to discover, became a necessity after the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 abruptly segregated Soviet-controlled East Berlin from the sectors of the city overseen by the Allies to the West. While there were several border checkpoints - designated consecutively using the phonetic alphabet - Charlie became the best known because it served as the main crossing point for non-Germans and diplomats between the two Berlins between 1961 and 1990. This was also the place when the infamous stand-off between Soviet and American tanks took place shortly after the Wall first went up. As such, Checkpoint Charlie quickly became a potent symbol of the Cold War. The original checkpoint was dismantled a few months after the Wall fell, and the original guardhouses were relocated to the Allied Museum. As the area remained a strong draw for visitors to Berlin, however, a replica of the American guardhouse was reconstructed on the site in 2000.
The area today stands as a large monument to the Wall, with a free open-air exhibit extending down Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, and markers noting the route the Wall took through the area. During peak visitor season, there are even actors in period uniforms posing next to the guardhouse for photos (although they were thankfully absent when I visited in March of this year). Adjacent to the guardhouse stands the Mauermuseum (Wall Museum) in the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a building that once was right on the edge of the American sector of West Berlin. The area attracts a high number of visitors to the city - it is more than a bit ironic that Berlin's biggest tourist attraction is one that doesn't actually exist anymore.
=== The Mauermuseum ===
The Mauermuseum is a privately funded institution set up by local historian Rainer Hildebrandt, and enthusiastically if not professionally curated. While I am aware that many visitors regard the museum as being a somewhat inadequate resource to represent such a historically significant site - not least my own Lonely Planet guidebook, which was quite scathing about it - I would beg to differ. While it is true that the museum was put together by amateurs (and looks it in many places), the key thing about this organisation for me was that the museum started in 1962, so it was gradually being put together as events around those who ran it took place. The rather odd-looking result was therefore a product of the organic growth of the project, and the original text panels have been kept in place as they are as much to do with the history of the museum as the stories it tells. As the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie was considered "an island of freedom right next to the border", it was for many years something of a base for escapees from the East, and for escape helpers, who could look out over the border from rooms in the building; these were the people who first ran the museum.
Given the origins and development of the museum, it is entirely understandable why it has an old-fashioned and slightly eclectic feel to its style of display. Visitors used to the slick modern displays and professional interpretation of major landmark museums (such as those in the excellent Museum of German History on Unter den Linden) will doubtless experience something of a culture shock when faced with a bombardment of information from over-large panels that date back to the 1960s. The first rooms you venture into also have little in the way of objects, but that is due to these galleries having been developed more as a protest against the Wall than as a coherent means of museum display. It was only later than objects were acquired and a proper museum set up.
With a little patience and a preparedness to sift through the large amounts of information on offer, however, this museum is a gem for anyone with an interest in history. While other museums in Berlin have a section of the Wall itself on display, here things get a lot more personal - and it you would have to be hard-hearted indeed not to be moved by some of the items and stories on display here. Take the pair of jeans on display in one of the upstairs rooms. At first glance they seem like any other pair of torn jeans, but when you look closer, you can see that the tears still have blood stains around them; they were worn by a man on an escape attempt from East Berlin, and he tore them on barbed wire in the Wall's "death strip". He was quite badly injured in the process, but he did make it successfully to the West.
The items that make for the most fascinating viewing in the museum are those associated with the more ingenious escape methods used by East Berliners defecting to the West. During the 28 years that the Wall was up, there were an estimated 5,000 escape attempts from East Berlin; in the early days of the Wall, this often involved jumping from buildings along the border or vaulting over areas of low barbed wire, but as the area grew more fortified, escape attempts became more elaborate. Amongst the items on display in the museum are improvised hot air balloons, a car modified to hide a stowaway alongside the engine, a canoe paddled into the North Sea in search of land or a friendly boat, and a harness used on a zip wire fired across the border. The bravery and ingenuity of those involved was truly astonishing.
=== Final Thoughts ===
The Mauermuseum is a fascinating place to spend a half-day if you have any interest in Berlin's recent past. While many visitors will be put off by the sheer volume of information presented in the galleries, anyone who enjoys reading about subjects in more depth than most museums allow and is happy to explore galleries structured more around a practical use of space than ordered presentation of facts will find the place filled with absorbing historical nuggets. True, it wasn't the most child-friendly museum I have ever set foot in, but I found the absence of multimedia exhibits quite refreshing and I actually enjoyed the simplicity of the display style. The entrance price is quite steep, especially when compared to other museums in the city, but I personally found it money very well spent.
=== Visitor Details ===
Nearest U-bahn station: Kochstrasse
The Mauermuseum is open daily between 9am and 10pm.
Admission is Euro12.50 for adults, Euro9.50 for students, Euro9.30 adults with a Welcome Card and Euro5.50 for children under 10. There were approximately 1.2 Euros to the pound at the time of visiting in March 2011.
Information panels were displayed in German, English and French. Some information was additionally presented in Russian.
There are lockers in the basement that are free to use but you need 1 Euro coins to activate them.
There was a small snack bar in the museum, but I did not use it.
The museum has a well-stocked shop of Wall memorabilia that is accessible to non-visitors.
Summary: A museum dedicated to the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie