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A Look Behind the Scenes at the German Historical Museum

Deutsches Historisches Museum - Zeughaus © visitberlin, Foto: Wolfgang Scholvien

So this is where the German Historical Museum stores its collections that are not on display... Actually, I was expecting a huge warehouse with thousands of exhibits. Instead, I’m standing in front of the former Friedrich Engels barracks on Kupfergraben in Mitte. Together with other bloggers and winners of a contest, I am being given an exclusive behind the scenes look at what the museum has in storage. I’m excited!

Of field post, forgeries, and lost & found

The tour gets started in the collection Documents II, containing papers from 1914 to the present. There are thousands of pieces in this area alone: 160,000 to be exact, with another three to four thousand added each year. And I always thought my house was full of papers! (The collection Documents I, by the way, from the Middle Ages until 1914 contains another 60 to 70,000 pieces.) The collection holds anything and everything that might be considered important some day, the covers of major German news magazine Der Spiegel, for example. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough room to keep the insides. “Collecting today for tomorrow” is the motto here. On the floor, I run across a large wooden box full of letters. It is the largest treasure held by Documents II: a box full of field post, containing more than 3,000 letters from a couple written during the First World War. He was a soldier on the front lines and she was back home on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm.

Their letters include everyday things as well as their thoughts and desires, including sexual fantasies. Unfortunately, there’s no time to immerse myself in their correspondence as there are other interesting information and artefacts awaiting us. Arnulf Scriba, director of the collections, tells us where the documents originate: They come from the collections held by the former Museum für Deutsche Geschichte which became a part of the German Historical Museum after unification in 1990 as well as from purchases and donations. Forgeries, particularly from the period of National Socialism, are also frequently offered to the museum. Given the large quantity of documents, they naturally have to be handled with great care. Leaflets from the Weimar Republic, for example, are individually packed in envelopes inside folders that then disappear into one of the countless cabinet drawers. If they get sorted incorrectly, it can take years to relocate them and often they’re only found by pure luck! Curiosity 1: One staff member is exclusively responsible for keeping the inventory of leaflets.

Visiting the restoration workshops

I had never really given much thought to all the things that can and have to be restored, but it’s an everyday part of work at the museum. I have to say that I’m quite amazed: the museum restores paintings and posters, as you might imagine, but also textiles, glass, ceramics, wood, and even metal objects. The restorers are brought in whenever a new object is acquired or is being prepared for public display. For a poster to be hung on display in the museum, it first has to undergo an extensive process, starting with cleaning and de-acidification of the paper, pest control, correction of flaws and colours, and repairing any tears. Since posters were not designed to last, the restorers are performing miracles every day when it comes to their work with these fragile pieces. Each restoration is accompanied by extensive documentation: What was done, how, and when?

Curiosity 2: The poster restoration workshop reminds me of a pathology lab with tiled walls and floors, a large metal sink, and bright lamps. The last stop of our tour: painting restoration. Here we come across an image of a nobleman. When the restorer saw it for the first time, he immediately said to himself: “There’s something wrong with this painting.” Without further ado, an X-ray was ordered and the expert was right: the original image had been partially painted over! The nobleman’s misshapen nose had been “fixed” to help sell the painting. What do you say, Photoshop old-school! Now the original is once again being revealed. Complex restorations are on the agenda here. The painting “The Gold Daughter” was heavily damaged and has been restored with careful detail work: 3 months under the microscope! After more than two hours in the storerooms, I’m a little bit exhausted, but have also come away with a lot of impressions and interesting facts. On my next visit to the museum, I will definitely see the exhibits in a different light. Thanks for the look behind the scenes! About the German Historical Museum In addition to the permanent exhibition on German history, the museum is currently showing “1945 - Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning” (until 25 October),“Homosexuality_ies” (until 1 December), and “Unification – German Society in Transition” (until 3 January 2016). At the Long Night of Museums on 29 August, the museum will be offering various events and guided tours.

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