All posts by Thomas Biggs

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig

On April 30, 2020, the German government began to lift some of the lockdown restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the number of new infections per day in the country decreased. Museums, along with public parks and churches, have been allowed to reopen, as long as they follow federal social distancing guidelines.1 German museums will now be able to draw in visitors once again, but the visiting experience will be very different from what it was before. The opening procedure of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, with social distancing guidelines in place, provides a demonstration of how life will continue in Germany amid the pandemic.

The Stadtgeschichtliches Museum’s main exhibition building: the Old Town Hall in Leipzig
Photo by Thomas Biggs

The Stadtgeschichtliches Museum is the municipal museum of the city of Leipzig. It consists of eight exhibition buildings spread out around the city, each containing galleries pertaining to a topic of local history or culture. The museum’s main building at the sixteenth-century Old Town Hall contains a permanent exhibit of the city of Leipzig’s cultural history from the Middle Ages to the present. The nearby Haus Böttchergäßchen, a modern building, features space for rotating exhibitions about further topics of city art and culture. This building also houses an interactive children’s museum aimed at museumgoers ten and under. FORUM 1813, located next to the city’s famous Battle of the Nations monument, is a small museum dedicated to the Napoleonic Wars and the decisive Battle of Leipzig of 1813 that saw the defeat of Napoleon in the German states. The Schillerhaus, located north of the city center, features an exhibit in a farmhouse where poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller spent a summer in 1785. The Museum Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum holds an exhibition about coffee in Germany inside the oldest coffee house in the country, which opened in 1711. The Sportmuseum, next to the Red Bull Arena, covers regional athletic history and contains one of the largest sports-related collections in all of Germany. Finally, the Alte Börse, Leipzig’s seventeenth century customs house near the Old Town Hall, hosts lectures, readings, and other events put on by the museum organization.2

An exhibit about the 1989 Monday Demonstrations in the Old Town Hall.
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

 

A view inside the Museum Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

Like other museums in Germany, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem closed all of its facilities to the public in March 2020. On May 7, due to the lifting of restrictions, most of the museum’s facilities have reopened. Only the Children’s Museum and the libraries in the Haus Böttchergäßchen remain closed. Because the pandemic has not fully passed, special regulations in line with government recommendations are in place for museum visitors. All exhibition spaces will limit the number of visitors allowed inside at the same time. Visitors must remain six feet (two meters) apart from museum staff and each other, and must wear adequate mouth-nose coverings. The museum is encouraging visitors to use electronic payment for admissions rather than cash, and is engaging in regular disinfecting and cleaning of the facilities. No screening is required to enter, but hand sanitizer is offered for all visitors at entrance areas. All visitors are also asked to respect hygiene measures by regularly washing their hands, coughing into their arm, and keeping their hands away from their faces. 

Because of the almost two-month closure, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem postponed all of its upcoming special exhibitions and extended the duration of the exhibitions on display at the time of the closure. During the closure period, it also started a new online exhibit. Titled Hoffnungszeichen, (“Signs of Hope”), the exhibit features images and descriptions of artifacts from the museum’s collection that provided hope for city residents in past years. The first artifact exhibited was a communion chalice from 1632, a year when Leipzig suffered from a plague epidemic amid the Thirty Years’ War. The purpose of the exhibit, according to Musuem Director Dr. Anselm Hartinger, is to show that this generation of Leipzigers “are by no means the first generation to be confronted with general societal challenges, pandemics, wars and upheavals in Leipzig, [who] learned to live with them and ultimately found a strengthened new beginning.”3 The exhibit also allows visitors to submit their own stories, photographs, and comments relating to their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in Leipzig. On May 7, the museum opened a corresponding physical exhibition in the Haus Böttchergäßchen, featuring the objects the museum showed online and a selection of the digital submissions from visitors. 

The Hoffnungszeichen exhibition in the Haus Böttchergäßchen
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

 

An art installation featuring toilet paper, on display in the Hoffnungszeichen exhibition
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

By following federal guidelines and encouraging visitors to do the same, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem has managed successfully reopen as the pandemic continues. In doing so it provides a model for how museums elsewhere can reopen, though time will tell if these measures will effectively prevent the virus from spreading more in lieu of a full lockdown. The new exhibition demonstrates this museum’s recognition of COVID-19 as an important historical event that will be studied extensively in the future, and an intention to contribute to its documentation within its community. 

  1. Nasr, Joseph. “Germany eases lockdown but Merkel warns of new outbreak risk.” Reuters, April 30, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-merkel/germany-eases-lockdown-but-merkel-warns-of-new-outbreak-risk-idUSKBN22C2WO. []
  2. Unsere Häuser.” Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.stadtgeschichtliches-museum-leipzig.de/besuch/unsere-haeuser/. []
  3. Stadtgeschichtliches Museum setzt digitale Hoffnungszeichen.” leipzig.de. Stadt Leipzig, March 24, 2020. https://www.leipzig.de/news/news/stadtgeschichtliches-museum-setzt-digitale-hoffnungszeichen/ []

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: German-Russian Museum

As the anniversary of V-E Day arrives, another museum in Berlin finds itself changing the way it observes. The German-Russian Museum is the center of May 8th commemorations in Berlin. In 2020, this historic museum is taking action to ensure that its commemoration is accessible even from the home.

The German-Russian Museum is housed in a circa-1936 building in Berlin-Karlshorst. The building began its life as the mess hall of a Wehrmacht military engineer school, but became known internationally on May 8, 1945 as the place of Nazi Germany’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. In a ceremony held in the school’s central hall, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht signed the German Instruments of Surrender. The document officializing the capitulation was accepted and signed by Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov and British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, with Generals Carl Spaatz of the United States and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny of France signing as witnesses. The building subsequently served as the headquarters of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, and in the 1960s became the “Museum of Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War.” The museum was organized and operated by the Soviet military and presented the history of the German-Soviet war. In the late 1990s, the museum was redone in a collaboration between German, Russian, and Ukranian historians to chronicle German-Soviet relations between the Russian Revolution and the end of the Cold War while retaining a focus on World War II. It underwent a second revision in 2013, with upgrades to the permanent displays. The museum’s centerpiece is a recreation of the “Capitulation Hall” where the surrender ceremony took place, made to appear as it did in 1945. In addition to the main gallery, there are also exhibits about the building’s history, including the preserved offices of the Soviet military administration. Some exhibits from the museum’s Soviet era have also been preserved, displaying how the history was presented during the Cold War era. Outside on the museum grounds there is an extensive collection of Soviet armor and artillery, as well as monuments erected by the Soviets. 

The mess hall of the Heerespionierschule as it appeared in 1945
© Foto Timofej Melnik, Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

 

The museum building today, with the flags of Germany, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine flown out front
© Photo Thomas Bruns, Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

 

The central hall of the museum building, where the surrender ceremony took place
Photo by Thomas Biggs

 

One of the monuments outside the museum, featuring a Soviet T-34 tank, as it appeared on May 8, 2018. Wreaths and flowers have been laid on the pedestal.
Photo by Thomas Biggs

The German-Russian Museum usually hosts a large commemoration event every May 8th. Dignitaries from Russia visit the museum, and there is a concert and a serving of Russian food and drinks. A wreath-laying ceremony takes place at the monuments outside. The museum planned for an expanded ceremony this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, including the opening of a new exhibition, a visit from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and visits from representatives of all the former Allied powers, to take place over several days. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions, all of these events had to be canceled. However, due to the German government lifting some of the restrictions on May 4th, the German-Russian Museum will be able to hold a reduced ceremony. The Capitulation Hall will be open to visitors between 10:00 am and 8:00 pm on May 8th through 10th. The exhibit galleries will remain closed. Outside there will be an outdoor exhibition about the surrender, similar to the larger one that was supposed to take place on Pariser Platz. Berlin Mayor Michael Müller will visit the museum on May 8th, and there will be a smaller wreath-laying ceremony later that day. 

The museum is also taking measures to make sure visitors can view its content from home. Most notable is their handling of the new exhibition that was to debut for the anniversary. Titled “From Casablanca to Karlshorst,” the exhibition traces the progress of the Second World War from the 1943 Casablanca Conference, where the Allied powers determined that an “unconditional surrender” from Germany would be the only acceptable means of concluding the war, to Germany’s unconditional surrender at Berlin-Karlshorst in 1945. The exhibit follows two themes: the efforts of the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and the escalation of violence in Europe by the Nazis that led up to the end of the war. Notable artifacts on display were to be a Russian-Orthodox liturgical book, recovered from a village in Belarus destroyed by German occupiers, and a tree trunk from the site of the Below Forest temporary camp with the names of Soviet POWs carved into it.  The museum has created a virtual tour of the exhibition, accessible at https://tour.art.vision/deutsch-russisches-museum-de-en-fr.html. Using software similar to Google Maps Street view, visitors can go through the entire exhibition. All of the exhibit text, presented in German, Russian, and English, is clear and readable. The Capitulation Hall and Marshal Zhukov’s office are also accessible in the virtual tour. 

A view inside the “From Casablanca to Karlshorst” exhibition
© Photo: Harry Schnitger, Museum-Berlin-Karlshorst

The museum also has a page on their website dedicated the 75th anniversary at https://www.museum-karlshorst.de/index.php?id=146&L=1. This page features selected photographs from the museum’s archives related to the surrender, more information and highlighted artifacts from the new exhibition, and pictures and testimonies sent by present-day children from Germany, the former Soviet Union, and the former Western Allies as answers to the question “What does World War II mean for you?” Visitors to the page can submit their own answer to that question via the email address erinnerung@museum-karlshorst.de. They can also partake in an online poll asking the same question, with the options of “Victory,” “Defeat,” “Liberation,” “New Beginning,” and “Meaningless” for answers. The content is all available in German, Russian, and English, with the photograph pages also available in French and Polish. 

Screenshot of the “Voices from children and teenagers” page

Though a large-scale on-site commemoration of the 75th anniversary of V-E Day is not possible this year, the German-Russian Museum has made sure that the occasion will still be observed, and has made their contributions accessible to a worldwide audience through its online platform. 

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: Allied Museum Berlin

Editorial note: Thomas Biggs is an intern at the German Historical Institute Washington DC. He is a graduate of the George Washington University (2019) with a BA in International Affairs and minors in History and German Studies. He studied in Berlin for his junior year spring semester with the IES Abroad Language and Area Studies Program in collaboration with the Humboldt University of Berlin. During this semester he visited the Allied Museum Berlin as part of his coursework. His areas of study included security policy, US and German history, and the development of German democracy between 1815 and the present.

Every museum’s intention is to attract visitors: A museum wants people to experience the stories and objects it has on display, with the hope that they learn something new or understand something greater. Unique exhibitions and significant artifacts are what convince people to visit a specific museum location. The experience of being in the physical location, being able to see images or objects, hear, sounds, and sometimes even smell smells associated with a particular idea or period, is what drives people to visit a museum location. Information today is more accessible than ever, be it in books, on television, or on the internet. Yet people still visit museums, and million-dollar museum projects keep opening, because there is something so unique about the museum experience that cannot be conveyed through any other medium. It is a full immersion in a topic, in a time, and in a place. The COVID-19 crisis has presented a great problem for museums, as stay-at-home orders have made it impossible for them to perform this necessary function of attracting and educating visitors at their specialized locations. To stay in touch with their visitors and present their collections without opening museum buildings, museums have turned to the internet. New technology has allowed for innovative ways to bring a museum to one’s home.

The Allied Museum in Berlin is one such institution facing the issues brought on by COVID-19. The museum presents the history of the three Western Allied powers’ (Great Britain, France, and the United States) military presence in West Berlin and West Germany during the Cold War. It interprets the daily lives and missions of the Allied troops, as well as the impact their presence had on Germany. The museum’s collections hold scores of related artifacts and documents. Its physical location at Clayallee 135, in the former American Sector, is intricately tied to the history it presents. The museum makes use of two former American base buildings, the Outpost Theater and the Nicholson Memorial Library, to house its galleries. In between the two buildings is a plaza displaying the museum’s large artifacts. The most popular of these is the British Handley Page Hastings cargo aircraft, a participant in the Berlin Airlift. On Sundays between April and October, visitors can pay one Euro to climb inside the aircraft, take a look into the cockpit, and view a short film about the airlift. The aircraft is effective at drawing families to the museum on Sundays and is one source of much-appreciated donations for the otherwise state-funded museum.

The museum’s lot with the Handley Page Hastings as its centerpiece. The Nicholson Memorial Library is in the background. Photo by Thomas Biggs

Since the Allied Museum closed on March 14, visitors cannot experience it in any of these ways. All of the museum’s planned events for the foreseeable future have been cancelled. The museum’s website, alliiertenmuseum.de, has a posted notice about the indefinite closure. Otherwise the website remains largely as it did before march, featuring summaries of the exhibit galleries and an entry about highlighted objects. The “Collections” section offers descriptions of the museum’s collection areas and articles about three “highlighted” artifacts selected on a rotating basis. Historical information and statistics about the Berlin Airlift and denazification are also featured. The museum’s events list has been updated to announce the cancellations.

Fortunately, the Allied Museum is still working to stay in contact with interested patrons, and is making use of new ways to engage the public while they are sheltering in place. The museum has launched a new YouTube channel (titled “Alliiertenmuseum”) featuring German-language video tours. The channel currently has four videos, all posted within the last month. Three of them highlight “favorite objects” on display in the museum galleries, with a visitor guide telling in-depth stories about each. The fourth video features a “behind-the-scenes” look at the museum’s archival facilities, showing how artifacts and documents are catalogued. The museum plans to upload more videos in the coming weeks. The museum’s Facebook page is similarly engaging audiences by posting historical images and photographs of more of the museum’s artifacts, all accompanied by German and English descriptions. The museum will post all further information about museum activities during the pandemic to this page.

The Allied Museum’s Facebook page

May 8, 2020 will mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (V-E Day), and the Allied Museum had plans to observe the occasion. There was to be an open-air exhibition by the Brandenburg Gate about the end of the war, featuring contributions from the Allied Museum and other Berlin museums that document this period in history. Sadly, this exhibition had to be canceled as well. Allied Museum Director Jürgen Lillteicher states that the majority of the exhibition will now be shown online instead. Dr. Lillteicher hopes that interviews recorded for the exhibition will be made available online as well. Information about this project can be found at kulturprojekte.berlin/projekt/75-jahre-kriegsende/ and on the Facebook page “75 Jahre Kriegsende.”

The museum had additionally planned a film series to be shown at the museum, featuring works of cinema about events between D-Day and V-E Day. Instead, posts about the planned featured films are being added to the Facebook page, so individuals can watch them at home. The museum also intended to host events covering the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the Allied forces. Posts about this topic are being made for the Facebook page as well, with the most recent one featuring the liberation of Sachsenhausen by the Soviets on April 22, 1945.

The Allied Museum has found ways to engage potential visitors even though no one can visit the museum site itself. Its solutions, utilizing familiar social media platforms, are simple yet effective. People wanting to learn about the postwar period or what the museum itself has to offer can do so by utilizing these platforms, even after the pandemic has passed.