One of the things I loved about the movie 'Goodbye Lenin' was the lengths that Alex and his sister go to in order to redecorate their apartment to convince their mother, when she comes out of a long coma, that they're still living in the 'old days' of Communist East Germany. Desperately they seek out cheap furniture, nylon clothes and even empty Spreewald pickle jars, all those things we now regard as kitsch and retro.
Berlin's "Museum of the DDR" (DDR standing for Deutsche Demokratische Republik) has all these things and much more. This well presented exhibition looks at all aspects of life in East Germany from childhood and education, through the teenage years, and into adulthood. It covers fashion, food, interior design, hobbies and holidays. There are sections on newspapers, state security and relationships with other countries behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere.
The museum is located five minutes from the Alexander Platz and the television tower. It is housed in the ground floor of a rather grand old building on the Spree Promenade. It's an area where there are lots of museums as well as a popular crafts market so it's a part of Berlin that is always busy with tourists and as we suspected from the previous day's visit to the Berlin Wall museum at Checkpoint Charlie, there was a queue of people waiting to get in. 'Ostalgia' is big business and this must have been at the forefront of the minds of the people that dreamt up this museum, which is notable in the fact that it's a private concern.
In my experience private museums tend to be pretty rubbish; I'm sure there are lots of good ones, but, for the most part, the ones I have visited have been a major let down. Those in charge of the "Museum of the DDR" pride themselves on ploughing all the profits back into the running of the museum and the upkeep of the exhibits. Admission is Euro6 for adults and Euro4 for children but there are some discounts to be had (we got a 25% discount by showing our Berlin Welcome Card) and if you were able to see everything in this very comprehensive exhibition you'd be getting good value.
It would be easy to poke fun at the DDR and everything about it; let's face it, there's plenty to laugh about. A prime example is the keeping of 'smells' in glass jars in the Stasi headquarters; we know this is ludicrous but the state police kept them believing that they would one day lead to the arrest of some enemy of the state or another. There are plenty of photographs of people with terrible haircuts wearing equally shocking clothes but this exhibition is about more than simply laughing at out-dated fashions; the fashion section of the exhibition looks at how designers were encouraged and the design briefs they worked to, the development of new synthetic fabrics and the problems that people faced when wearing the clothes. There are lots of first hand accounts included in the exhibition and in the fashion section, you can find out what people thought about wearing clothes made in the DDR from cheap synthetic fibres.
There are some great mock ups of domestic interiors and the attention to detail employed in creating them is marvellous. Everything from wall and floor coverings to souvenirs from holidays on the side board and food packaging in the kitchen has been chosen with care, not just to create an accurate visual account of life in the old East Germany, but to make a point. Books on the shelf have been chosen carefully to illustrate how some literature was censored while other authors were held up as exemplary.
The section on shopping is gloriously entertaining but also well researched and inventive. There are two receptacles containing different types of coffee bean. One is a fairly decent quality while the other is poor quality and tastes awful. Coffee is an expensive commodity and, of course, something not produced in western Europe. In 1976 the price of coffee began to rise and the East German government decided to buy an inferior blend instead; this contained 51 per cent coffee while the remainder comprised chicory, rye and sugar beet among other fillers. The East German people were furious and demanded the return of the original coffee: fortunately the govenment was able to enter into an agreement with Vietnam which, along with a price drop in 1978, averted a crisis. Visitors to the museum can taste the two blends and compare them.
While there's a lot to smile about, this exhibition does not ignore the negative aspects of life in East Germany, though it doesn't make its point as seriously as some other museums in Berlin. I was interested in this part of the exhibition but as the sections looking at state security are at the end of the natural route though the museum, I was tiring by then and I think other visitors were starting to flag and skimmed over what they might otherwise has spent more time on.
As well as the use of conventional text boards and photographic displays, this exhibition is very interactive with lots of audio-visual elements. This includes drawers and cupboards built into the display walls, secret windows, interactive musical games and a mini cinema where you can watch clips of popular East German television programmes. Most of these work very well but there was one occasion when an oblivious Italian tourist almost smashed my head as she opened a cupboard door, and I saw one man do himself some mischief when he walked into a drawer that had been left open.
You need to allow at least a couple of hours to see this exhibition, especially at busy times as progress around the exhibits can be slow. The museum is open daily from 10.00am until 8.00pm except for Saturdays when it stays open until 10.00pm.
The "Museum of the DDR" does the popular culture and domestic life aspects better than it covers the security and state themes. Nonetheless, we found this an enjoyable and entertaining experience and we felt we'd learned a great deal about a variety of areas. It's not an attraction I would think of revisiting but I would recommend a visit to anyone wanting to find out a bit more about the reality of living in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
10178 Berlin Mitte
Nearest U-Bahn - Alexanderplatz or Klosterstrasse
Nearest S-Bahn - Hackescher Markt or Alexanderplaz
A gift shop sells a variety of related souvenirs, while an adjoining DDR-Restaurant serves East German classics
The museum is wheelchair accessible.
All texts are in German and English
A little after midnight on 13th April 1961, Berlin changed forever. As the city slept, thousands of East German police and soldiers rolled out miles of barbed wire around the Soviet-controlled portion of the city, cutting streets in two, bifurcating u-bahn lines and stopping those in the East of the city travelling to the West - even to commute to work or visit family. The barbed wire was soon replaced with 155km of heavily guarded concrete slabs, an almost impenetrable barrier dividing the city firmly in two until it was brought down in 1989. For those trapped in East Berlin for the 28 years that the wall was up, life in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) became starkly different to that in the West. While visitors to Berlin may now have a dim awareness of some of the more widely known aspects of East German life - the Trabant cars, for instance, or the uniform housing blocks - the DDR Museum was established through private funds to show more of the social history of life during this period. This is the only museum in the world that claims to do this, making it an irresistible draw to visitors to the city with an interest in history.
=== DDR Museum ===
Sitting on the bank of the River Spree close to Berlin cathedral, the DDR Museum is a fairly small affair, consisting of one low-ceilinged room, a rather cramped gift shop and a small cafe. It is not much space in which to tell visitors about the DDR in its entirety, and given that it generally eschews politics in favour of the experiences of ordinary East Germans, the Museum of East German Life might perhaps have been a better name for the project. Semantics aside, though, this is neither the largest nor the slickest museum you will find in Berlin, but I would certainly rate it as one of the most interesting; that it was easily the most crowded museum I visited in the city suggests that its friendly, interactive approach to presenting the past is widely appreciated by visitors. Certainly it was enough to get the museum nominated as a contender for European Museum of the Year in 2008, quite an achievement given the museum only opened in 2006 and works solely on the proceeds of visitor receipts and donations.
Despite its small size, the museum packs a lot of information into the space it has, arranging its displays into themed areas (fashion, music, sport, work, education and leisure in the main) with lots of hands-on experiences that will appeal in particular to younger visitors. Certainly while I was there the fuseball table used to illustrate the display about the one and only professional football match played between East and West Germany proved an irresistible draw to children (it was the 1974 World Cup and the East won 1-0).
A widely cited aspect of the museum is the chance for visitors to sit in the driving seat of a genuine Trabi (East Germany's ubiquitous and easy to repair car, which was fortunate given how prone it was to breaking down), but for me the reconstruction of a typical East German apartment was much more of an eye-opener. Until you have stood in the space of one of the cramped and poorly furnished boxes that was considered adequate to house a family, it is hard to appreciate just how confining and miserable it must have been for the inhabitants. Yet the information panel stated that East Germans were universally happy with this situation; I very much doubt that, but perhaps something was lost in translation. The employment section was also shocking in its simplicity; under Soviet control, it took four years to qualify as a shop assistant, for instance, and brick-layers earned more than many university-educated professionals. While I suppose the aim of the museum is to reveal the lesser-known aspects of East German life, I was still surprised by how little the museum touched on the regime's cruelty and vast spy network (which even extended to the point of children being encouraged to report on their parents); if this museum was the only impression you ever had about the DDR, you might well be left wondering why anybody wanted the wall to come down at all.
Interpretation of the displays was presented in both German and English, and guided tours are available around the museum in these and other languages (I noticed one being conducted in French while I was there). The information was generally clearly written and well supported by the objects, photographs and models on display, and there is easily sufficient to occupy visitors for an hour or two in the museum. Given the size of the museum - which got pretty crowded when I was there despite it being a Friday in mid-March and therefore well outside of peak visiting times - I would advise anyone planning to visit in summer or at the weekend to go early so that they will have the space to really appreciate the displays.
=== Final Thoughts ===
Although I enjoyed my visit to the DDR Museum, the thing that struck me throughout was the light-hearted tone that was consistently used through the displays. We are encouraged to laugh at the pictures of collective potty training sessions, the East German polyester fashions, and the obsessions of the secret police with their listening stations. For a museum exhibiting life within a highly repressive regime, this was a little uncomfortable for me. By all means smile at the more outrageous aspects of the regime, but the museum indulged perhaps a little too much in what has become known as "ostalgie" - nostalgia for the East - than I felt was quite appropriate. I would still recommend a visit to the DDR Museum - it will be an hour or two well spent for a quite modest outlay - but you might want to balance the overly endearing aspects of it with a visit to the Berlin Wall Museum or the Stasi Prison to remind yourself there was more to the East than collective nudist holidays and officially sanctioned dance music.
Recommended (with some reservations).
=== Visitor Information ===
Open 10am to 8pm daily, 10pm on Saturdays
There is also a cafe on site - the DDR Restaurant - but I did not use it
Nearest s-bahn and u-bahn stations: Alexanderplatz
Entry: Euro6 adults / Euro4 concessions / Euro4.50 adult with Berlin Welcome Card
At the time of writing, Euro1 = £0.87
"Der Geist einer Zeit lebt nicht nur in Bildern und Büchern, sondern auch in Töpfen und Pfannen."
"The spirit of an era is not just reflected in pictures and books, but also in pots and pans."
The DDR/GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or German Democratic Republic) aka East Germany was a self-declared socialist state formed in 1949. It comprised the Soviet Zone of occupied Germany and the Soviet sector of occupied Berlin. From 1961 the state was separated from the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany) by a physical boundary down the middle of Germany, as well as the most notorious border: the Berlin Wall, which cut through the heart of the capital city for almost 30 years.
**The museum: a slice of life***
This throughly modern museum, which was nominated for European Museum of the Year in 2008, basically consists of a collection of artifacts from everyday East German life, grouped into thematic categories and displayed in cases made to look like typical GDR concrete-slab apartment blocks. Within the cases there are plenty of drawers and doors to open, videos to watch and recordings to listen to. The objects are complemented by information panels in German and English.
This is the most hands-on museum I've ever been to. Take the 'education' area, where you can pick up a child's satchel and even take out and read a copy of a genuine school report. In the 'fashion' zone you can poke your nose into the wardrobe of a GDR girl-about-town and marvel at her scratchy yet colourful nylon slacks and apron dresses - visitors are even allowed to try them on if they're brave enough! The 'transport' section houses a genuine Trabant car (for which the waiting list used to be 16 years!) which you can clamber into and try out for size.
The exhibition's pièce de résistance has to be the fully-equipped GDR standard-issue flat, where weary tourists can have a nice sit down on the creaky sofa and take in a bit of GDR TV or peruse a sex education book or socialism manual from the bookcase. If you're even nosier, why not have a rummage through the bathroom cabinet or the kitchen cupboards, or check what's in the washing machine? You can't help but wonder why the museum is so relaxed about letting tourists get their grubby mitts all over the displays. Well, before the museum opened a few years ago, it advertised for donations in Germany and was inundated with GDR artifacts. They also came from apartment and house clearances, jumble sales and flea markets. It's rumoured that the museum has a whole warehouse full of these objects!
The museum cinema shows (subtitled) GDR documentaries - last time I visited there was a faintly propagandistic reel on government housing projects and an interview with residents who complained about the lack of hot water, followed by a voiceover declaring without a hint of irony: "When all your needs are catered for: that's socialism!". There are also TV shows to watch and radio shows and pop music is available on headphones (my personal recommendations would be Die Puhdys' exuberant 'Wenn ein Mensch lebt' and City's sultry song 'Am Fenster', both of which were big hits beyond the GDR borders in the '70s). The 'media' section is interesting as it shows how all the major newspapers carried more or less the same articles.
The museum could do with giving out audio-guides for tourists who aren't fluent in German or English - there didn't seem to be any on offer both times that I was there. It should also provide subtitles for the TV shows and better explanations e.g. of the Stasi surveillance recordings (listening in is pointless if you can't understand them) and make the interactive quiz doable for someone who doesn't have a PhD in East German labour market history.
The museum really makes the most of its small space, managing to cram in a ticket desk, 'cafe' (really just a coffee machine and two bistro tables) and a souvenir shop. The latter has a decent collection of postcards, games and (quite pricey) novelty/ household items. There are plenty of books and DVDs, but again little for non-German speakers. I know there are English/ subtitled versions of most of them, so there's no excuse!
The descriptions and information panels are, I think, respectful of the GDR's people and traditions; all objects are presented in a matter-of-fact way with straightforward descriptions of how things were at the time. The sections on naturist holidays and dodgy GDR fashions could have easily poked fun, but they don't. The tone of the museum carefully avoids making this long-lost state seem a kind of freak show - after all, for many of the city's residents this simply reflects the only life they knew until 1989.
But is it all too positive? Walking around the exhibition on my second visit I sometimes had the impression that it barely touched on the more political aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain and glossed over the dark aspects in favour of 'Ostalgie' or 'nostalgia for the GDR'. There is a corner devoted to the Stasi (state intelligence organisation) spying techniques, but it highlights the service's inefficiency and incompetence over its more nefarious side. There is little on the Berlin Wall and the 136 GDR citizens (at least) who were killed trying to cross it, nor on the brutal Stasi prison or even the moving individual stories of families and friends who were split up along with their country for decades.
On the other hand, Berlin already has its fair share of more 'serious' museums and historical sites. If you approach the DDR museum simply as a step back in time and behind the Iron Curtain, it's a fun and informative day out, whether you remember when East Germany played in the World Cup, or you weren't even born when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
Prices: Admission costs Euro5.50 for adults and Euro3.50 for concessions/groups. At the time of writing (Feb 2009) visitors receive a booklet of vouchers with their tickets which give 20% discount on further Berlin attractions such as the zoo. Guided tours of the museum are available on request.
Opening times: Mon-Sun 10am to 8pm (Sat 10am to 10pm).
Location: Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, close to Hackescher Markt and Alexanderplatz S-Bahn (suburban rail) stations in the city's eastern (where else?) centre, opposite the unmissable, green-roofed Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral).
There's a huge selection of bars, restaurants and cafes down the road at Hackescher Markt and in the the surrounding streets, where you can wind down after having taken in all that history!
This is a relatively new museum in Berlin that focuses on what everyday life was like in the former East Germany. Its a fascinating museum for the visitor, but for locals it is has been a controversial addition to Berlin's museum collection. Although some people view the exhibition as an important part of coming to terms with the country's history, others feel that it trivialises the brutality of the dictatorship in the former GDR.
The exhibit handles the key areas of education, work, shopping, media, sports and holidays and texts are written in German and English.
The museum is a very hands on experience. One area has a complete set up of an East German appartment from the 1980s, where you can root through all the drawers and cupboards and learn about what every day life was like for an 'average' citizen. There is also a Trabant car which you can explore, which was the East German motorcar that everyone aspired to own and for which there was a very long waiting list.
For me it was interesting, as everyday life is the part you never really hear about, as its mostly all about ideoligy and politics.
Although the museum appears to gloss over the dictatorship in place, many people are surprised to find the monitoring station towards the end of the museum similar to that used by East Germany's secret police. As while visitors are passing comment at the lurid decor of the GDR home, they are actually being spied on and listened to by other visitors.
I find the subject particularly interesting, seeing as this was reality for millions of people, within my lifetime and spent a good 2 hours there. If this is of interest to you, then it is a 'must see' in Berlin.
Monday - Sunday 10am till 8pm
Saturday 10 am till 10 pm
Admission is Euro5.50 (August 2008)