Alter Ego

This essay was written soon after the second year excursion to Berlin in 2009
Frieze displayed in the main hall of the Pergamon Museum Door: Blair Kneppers

Ich bin ein Berliner

In my head I had a picture of Berlin, based on the experiences and views of other, seemingly worldlier people. The picture I had was of a hub for open-minded and freethinking Europe, a modern day Bohemia for nonconformist thinking and sexual emancipation. What I encountered was not quite what I had in mind.

If Berlin were a human being, he would be a young man, very much like myself. After having dealt with a turbulent and sometimes aggressive adolescence, he is still trying to find out who he wants to be and how he wants to make his mark on the world. He has had a troubled past and is doing his best to deal with persistent frustration and guilt, carefully finding pride in his good points and ability to flirt with a secret eccentric life, hoping that the other people in the world will eventually be able to comprehend why he is the way he is.

The human glitch

I might be alone in saying this, but the problem with man and his perception of history, certainly of history before his own social consciousness, is that he tends to see things as strings of individually defined instances (much like the index of a history reference book), as opposed to an immense volume of layered narratives that consume days and months and years. The subtleties of cause and effect are often lost and misconstrued hearsay becomes set in stone as fact.

Visitors to Berlin bear witness to this glitch in human perception of time, if they’re willing to look hard enough. Someone who was born and raised in the GDR finds themselves living in purgatory. Both their personal and their collective histories have been systematically erased, starting immediately with the fall of the Wall on the 9th November 1989.

A phenomenon developed from within this group of ‘liberated’ East Germans, which they affectionately call die Ostalgie; the sentimental yearning, or nostalgia, of the seemingly dead and buried Ost and all that it had to offer. The term 'Ostalgie' has come to have a blanket meaning of a pining for a lost Marxist regime, not only in Germany, but all over the world. The Western World looks at this as being a curious abnormality, for how in the world could you miss the oppression of such a government? The mind boggles.

I am able to sympathise with these Ostalgisten and actually find it difficult not to draw parallels between their story and my own. Almost eight years ago I was forced to leave behind a country that I called my home, Zimbabwe, another flailing state run by a confused socialist regime. Since my departure, the places and faces from my childhood have been erased, either only in my own mind, or quite literally so. For a very long time I mourned a country that no longer existed as I remembered. I was terribly homesick. The result, I can tell you, is an identity crisis.

Up against the Wall

Twenty years after the bulk of the Berlin Wall was pulled down and sold to American tourists, there is still a tangible barrier present in the city. As a living, breathing organism, Berlin can be described as having a split personality for a number of reasons. The past and the future are intertwined and are inseparable; for example the way plots of unclaimed land mark the streets like wide gaps in a grey-toothed grin. The guilt and anguish for the war are still felt, but so is the pride in the recovery since.

For Cultural Heritage specialists (in training), this plurality of identity poses an interesting question:

How do you deal with a layered history whilst respecting all the perspectives of those involved, as well as their cultural heirs?

The dilemma is that you want to be able to present an objective view on the past, as well as being able to value the emotional perspective of the German peoples and be conducive to the sense of a collective identity.

A prime example of this dilemma is of two different visions on restoration seen in a number of museums and other cultural institutions. For example, the Pergamon Museum, which primarily houses a breathtaking collection of classical architecture and sculpture, clearly strives to restore the objects in such a way that I find very honest indeed; only original fragments are used and missing parts are not reproduced or filled in, leaving the object bare and fragmented, but very dignified and true unto itself. These measures are being taken so far that even previous restorations are being re-evaluated. This is called ‘derestorisation’.

In stark contrast, the plans for the resurrection of the Prussian Berliner Stadtschloß (or the Hohenzollern Palace) at its original site on the Museuminsel seem to be an attempt to rewrite the history of the city, as opposed to telling its story. Historically, this site is the iconic place of power in the heart of the German capital. During the bombings of the Second World War, the regal palace (which by this time had passed through many hands and already changed its function a number of times) suffered tremendous damage. Having had the ability to restore the building to its former glory, at a price, the GDR decided rather to pull down the ruins, much to the dismay of the public, to build its Palast der Republik (1973 – 1976), an East Block monster that served as parliament and the party headquarters as well as a cultural and recreational centre.

Of course, with the reunification of Germany, there were mixed feelings about a building that quintessentially symbolised the conquered GDR. On the grounds of there being 720 tons of asbestos found in the building, the Bundestag made the expedient decision to pull it down. As soon as the funds become available, the construction will commence on the new, old palace of Prussian antiquity.

I think it is clear that I find this quite disturbing. This plot of land represents the turmoil that Germany has been through as a nation and by reconstructing the Stadtschloß, this turmoil is being suppressed or even erased, certainly that of the last century. It is what one might call ‘fake-fake’; undignified and disrespectful, lying by omission. This reconstruction is not using original materials, nor will it be able to convey a meaningful message and is therefore a form of ‘fantasy restoration’.

The complex will house the Humboldt Cultural Forum, from what I have understood, an anthropological museum. Would it not have been better to transform this plot of land into a memorial of the hard times and war years, or a monument that celebrates the unity and social/political equilibrium achieved since? I fear it is too late.

In a form of poetic justice, the Palast der Republik will also be ‘reborn’, only not in it’s original form or even in Berlin. Steel from the torn down complex will be used in the bold Al Burj tower project in Dubai.

Through the looking glass

The newly opened national history museum (2003), the Deutsche Historische Museum, is in an exciting position. It almost seems absurd that an old state with such an elaborate past has gone without a museum of this kind for so long. I feel strongly that knowledge centres, such as museums, are the instruments with which we can affirm our cultural identities.

One often sees a very one-sided, very proud and chauvinistic perspective in national history museums, and this is probably understandably so. This is the stance I expected to see in the Deutsche Historische Museum, but nothing could have been more incorrect. The format of each of the exhibition halls is essentially the same; open planned cubicles of detailed information on a specific German period or theme with an interesting addition. Along the interleading route there is supplementary information that places the story on a national level (seen in the ‘cubicle’), into perspective with European or even world events of the same period, which makes for a very complete and inclusive experience.

This contextualisation is indeed helpful to gain a broader view on history, but is also almost a proclamation of self-justification. This is most certainly not intended, but through my eyes, it demonstrates that the Germans are wary of anything that even suggests self-glorification, for fear that this behaviour will be affiliated with a past that they are forced to remember by the outside world. There is no margin for error or indulgence in too much satisfaction. Looking in the mirror has been difficult for years now.

In conclusion: the great divide

My overall impression of Berlin is that it is slowly picking up the pieces from a turbulent century, dazed and confused about how to proceed. The war wounds are not yet healed. The schism between past and future, the fine line between pride and shame are still so extremely tangible. The city needs to accept itself, embrace any less desirable alter ego it may have and move on.

I would very much have liked to have gone into much more detail about this subject, to elaborate on the examples used and to discuss other museums as well. Every visit to a museum of course had a well-reasoned meaning and value and all were appreciated in their own way.

In that short week, Berlin gained a new ambassador in me.


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