Friday, 13 April 2012

The Dahlem Museum Complex

The South-Western area of Berlin feels a bit distant from the action of Berlin Mitte. The district of Dahlem in particular seems a world away from the busy government and tourist areas around Brandenburger Tor and Alexander Platz. Indeed, the U-Bahn station Dahlem-Dorf has a thatched roof for goodness-sake, and is positioned opposite a country manor house adjacent to a working organic farm.

But it was not always so, as this area was once at the heart of the American Sector in a divided Berlin. Just up the road is Schöneberg Town Hall where JFK gave his famous 'Ich bin ein doughnut!' speech, and not far away you will find the Allied Museum on the site of the former US HQ and barracks on Clayallee (named after US General Clay of Berlin Airlift fame), which chronicles the role of the USA in liberating Berlin from the Nazis and rebuilding the city. With a bit of help from Britain and France too of course (the fourth ally, Russia, is represented in the museum mainly in terms of becoming the enemy in the Cold War ).

Dahlem is also the main campus for the Freie Universität Berlin (Free University of Berlin), which was founded in 1948 with the help of generous donations from the USA by students and lecturers critical of the draconian political system in force at the Humboldt University (which is based around Unter den Linden, at that time in the Soviet Sector).

Nowadays the Freie Universität Berlin remains one of the leading Universities in Germany, and more pertantly for this blog is home for the Dahlem Museum Complex (das Museumszentrum Berlin-Dahlem).

The Museum Complex houses three Museum in one large, sprawling building, namely the Museum of Asian Art (Museum für Asiatische Kunst), The Ethnological Museum (Ethnologisches Museum), and the Museum of European Cultures (Museum Europäischer Kulturen). The entrance ticket is for all three museums, and you can wander between each museum easily; often without realising which museum you are actually in.

These three museums have massive collections, and you could easily spend a day in each. If you don't want museum overload, then a better strategy than rushing around all (or any one) of them is to concentrate a visit on just one or two sections; for example, the impressive Polynesian exhibits, or the equally eye-opening African section.

Unlike central museums like The Pergammon, which can be murder on any day in high-season, the Dahlem Museums are much less crowded; sometimes the attendant staff seem to outnumber visitors. So, you can take your time to admire the collections and absorb what they are telling us about the cultures that created them. Or play a game of counting how many attendants you can jerk awake as you tip-toe into a room and cough.

Despite the size though, some cultures of the world hardly get a look-in - Australia and New Zealand aborigine cultures for example. This is partly because there just isn't enough space to exhibit everything in the archives, but mainly because the collections map the explorations and colonization of Germans in, mostly, the nineteenth century. So, not a lot from India, but lots of exhibits from the former German Protectorate of Nigeria.

Labelling and explanations of the artefacts in English is a bit haphazard; some areas of the museums have good English language coverage, whereas in others there might be one information board on the wall in English, but the objects themselves are labelled in German. This is usually not a problem if you have a grasp of basic words like Speer (spear), Boot (boat), Kopf (head), Schale (bowl), Mantel (coat), Malerei (painting), Maske (mask), Schmuck (jewellery), and so on, all of which are obvious just by looking at the object anyway. There is also an English audio guide included in the ticket price, but not many opportunities to use it.

Here are some of the artefacts from the African section. This is one of the most interesting, particularly as you don't get anything from this continent in the other Berlin museums outside of ancient Egypt. The Africa collection is displayed in a very dark, hot and stuffy series of confusingly arranged rooms though, perhaps taking the 'darkest Africa' metaphor a bit too far.

The Meso-America collection is also very interesting, including some large stone Aztec reliefs and sculptures. In comparison to the Africa section, these are displayed in a large, light and airy space.

Another highlight of the museums is the Polynesian collection, especially the outrigger boats, canoes, and catamarans, and reconstructed tribal hut.

There is a large series of rooms dedicated to North American indigenous cultures - Germans really love stories about Cowboys and Indians - but covering as it does from the Inuit to the Pueblo and all the diversity that entails, it does seem to be spreading itself a bit thin. There is an interesting room of modern Native American art though, and a good attempt at disassociating contemporary Native American culture from the romantic myths of Karl May.

The culture of India and South East Asia is mostly represented bysome magnificently sublime sculptures;

The Far Eastern sections are equally interesting, though by this time my feet were starting to give in. Apart from the expected Japanese, Korean and Chinese porcelain and delicate pen-and-ink artwork, there is a piece of contemporary Chinese conceptual art here in the form of Al Weiwei's wonderfully fragrant house made of bricks of tea in a meadow of tea leaves:

I haven't tried here to even cover the fascinating South American, Middle East, or Thai collections - never mind the whole of the museum of European cultures - and neither should you in one visit. Save it for another visit. And another. And another.

The plan is for the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum to be eventually relocated to the Humbolt-Forum, in a reconstructed Berlin City Palace (Berliner Stadtschloss) on Museum Island. It would be good from a lazy-tourist point-of-view to have all the main museums conveniently located together in the centre of Berlin, but would be a shame if the more adventurous tourists stopped making the trip out to Dahlem, where they would experience a unique and contrasting part of Berlin. That's if the Berlin City Palace ever gets re-built of course.

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