Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.” – Trungpa Rinpoche
I walk around the Neues Museum taking in the scars that the building still carries like badges of dishonour. The museum was bombed so badly during World War II that it was abandoned until the 1980s, and when restoration work took place in 2003, the scars – bullet holes, mainly – weren’t patched over, rather they were left and incorporated into the design. Today the concrete reflects an important layer of history; it tells stories that no amount of lifeless artefacts can ever tell.
Wandering around the collections, I see evidence of Egypt’s rich history in all its glory – papyruses, sculptures, intricately painted mummy cases. Viewing the majestic bust of Nefertiti, the star exhibit of all of Berlin’s museums, I feel tingly inside. The thought of what we are capable of creating never ceases to fill me with wonder; what we sculpt with our hands, what sentences we string together from our minds, what beauty we spill onto a canvas. We’ve been creating art for thousands and thousands of years.
We’ve also been creating war.
I continue to walk through the museum and stare hard at the bullet holes that are pierced into the plaster.
The day I decide to visit the East Side Gallery, thick, heavy clouds press down on the scene as if they are trying to squash themselves past the horizon. As I approach what was formerly part of the infamous Berlin Wall, the bright colours of the artwork appear as if they could come to life without warning. The sound of cars and buses driving along fills the air. Swarms of tourists clutching camera phones, selfie sticks and SLR cameras aimlessly mill around the scene, as if unsure of what they are actually doing here. The answer to this for many of them is simple.
To take selfies.
The East Side Gallery is a 1.3km long stretch of what was formerly the Berlin Wall; in 1990, international artists worked on 105 paintings on the east side of the concrete, which acts as a memorial for freedom. I walk down the adjacent pavement, looking past the camera hugging tourists and gates that enclose parts of the wall that are undergoing restoration. I try to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in the east while this monstrosity was dividing the city; how it must have felt to know that some of your loved ones lived on the other side, just miles away, but not having the freedom to go and join them.
I can imagine it – love and loss is a major part of the human condition, after all.
The jovial attitude of the others taking photos and selfies is lost on me. I think of the wars going on around the world, most predominately in Syria. I think about the walls we put up between ourselves and others, our own walls of prejudice, fear and ego. No wall divides here today, but we’re still heavily divided. The mere fact that many still turn a blind eye to the plight of refugees trying to make their way from Syria to safety makes me feel that, despite everything we’ve already been through as a human race, we still have a very long way to go.
As I get to the end of the gallery, I see a woman instructing her partner on how to take a photo of her in front of one of the pieces. The pavement is so small that as I walk past her I smell her sickly sweet perfume and I see the distinct tone of her blusher. When I get home, I look up the name of the artwork she was stood in front of.
It’s called Stay Free.
As I approach the room, I hear an eerie clanking. I’ve wandered down a corridor after seeing a sign for an art installation called ‘Memory Void,’ and I’m wondering what I’m about to experience. I’m already feeling out of sorts; I’ve been in the Jewish Museum for the past hour, looking at the personal objects of people who perished in some of the Nazi’s concentration camps. There are black and white family photos; final letters that were sent from Auschwitz where crucial information of what was about to happen was erased with a black marker; a purse that a woman gave in exchange for having her family’s coats repaired in preparation for being exiled to the camps.
I keep asking myself, over and over again “How did we let this happen?”
I enter the room and I’m confronted with a vast, grey space that’s vaguely shaped like a triangle. On the floor, I see the reason for the clanking; thousands of open-mouthed faces coarsely cut out from heavy, circular iron plates are on the floor. A man is stood in the midst of them, which is causing the clanking noise that’s disturbing the silence of the room.
Shortly after I enter, he exits, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to reflect here on my own. I feel like the room is so vast that it could swallow me up whole if I allow it to. The faces on the floor stare at me as if they’re pleading for mercy; I think of all those who’ve perished over the years in the name of whatever absurd war is going on and wonder if we will ever learn.
Places like this museum are great for highlighting the devastation of war and for dispelling the very stereotypes that help pit people against each other. I then think of all the scaremongering that is going on in media in not only this very continent but in this country; headlines talk about the abuses carried out by male refugees in Cologne, the ‘unmanageable’ amounts of refugees that are flooding into Europe. There’s an insinuation that there are many just here to abuse the system, as well as claims that terrorists are making their way into the continent under the guise of being refugees.
I then think of the people who are drawn to museums like the one I’m standing in, and think of how they’re the least likely ones who need to be in a space like this, and how the very people who believe everything they read, the people who want a scapegoat for their problems or who simply want to believe we live in a world that’s inherently bad, will be the very ones who never make it here.
The thoughts echo in my head as the metal faces on the floor continue to stare at me.
When you look at pictures of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe it’s difficult to imagine the impact it has when you’re physically present. I realise that the minute I start to approach the site, which from afar looks like a futuristic interpretation of a graveyard; coffin-sized slabs of concrete of varying heights dominate a large area. But it’s when you get among the slabs that you really start to appreciate the memorial’s impact.
I walk among the slabs, the grey Berlin sky adding to the gloominess of the whole experience. Despite the number of other visitors, and unlike what I experienced at the wall, no one is laughing here. I hear the click of an SLR camera in the distance and the footsteps of others in my proximity, as well as the distant hum of traffic in the background that’s characteristic of all big cities.
While I walk through the slabs, all of which are now taller than me, I turn to look to my side every time I come to an opening between them. Every time I seem to do that, I meet the eyes of a stranger who’s also making his or her way through the memorial. And, as if by reflex, we both look away immediately. The saying “turning a blind eye” comes to mind straight away and I wonder, considering how common people let the Holocaust happen by effectively ignoring the truth of the situation, if this was the artist’s intention.
I continue to meander among the concrete slabs until they no longer overwhelm me physically. The cityscape that surrounds the memorial is predominately grey, save for a single building that’s painted a bright shade of yellow.
I’ve now been in Berlin for 13 days. I read so much about the history of this city before I had even arrived, which I think has added to the richness of my experience here. I see how Berliners have ensured that the city’s history is embedded in its tapestry, whether that’s by leaving bullet holes in the walls or incorporating bomb damage into the restoration of its various buildings, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Germans aren’t afraid to talk about what happened here, which is something I highly respect them for – brushing the past under the carpet only keeps the mess at bay for a short while. Sooner or later all the rubbish resurfaces. It always does.
But given the current global climate, it saddens me that while we have made progress on so many things, we’re also still repeating old mistakes. The things that happened here or in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge did not happen that long ago, and yet nothing seems to change. You only need to look at North Korea to establish that.
I hate to think that what people went through here or elsewhere in the world happened in vain, as I have always said that mistakes are necessary and valuable if we are prepared to learn from them. Are we learning, though? Are we changing for the better? Or are we doomed to continue operating in the same way we seem to have operated since the beginning of mankind?
I’m not so sure anymore, and being here has brought up more questions than answers for me. But as I walk home and I see a toddler of no older than two fall into her dad’s arms in a fit of innocent giggles, I realise that there will always be beauty in this world. And, personally, I’ll never stop looking for it.
The Places I Visited
In the near future I’ll be writing more about the places I have been visiting, but for now here is a summary of where I went and the basic information that you need. I recommend the three-day Berlin Museum Pass, which for 24 Euros gives you access to most of the public museums. You can buy this from any of the participating venues or online here.
Located on Berlin’s famous Museum Island, this place was one of my favourites. I love how the war damage has been incorporated into the design, which makes looking at the building just as fascinating as seeing all the artefacts on display. It has a vast collection of Egyptian art, as well as other objects that trace the development of prehistoric and protohistoric cultures in the Middle East to the Atlantic, and from North Africa to Scandinavia. I was there for more than three hours and was delighted to find a whole room dedicated to Cyprus!
The museum pass covers entry to this museum.
East Side Gallery
Despite the annoying selfie obsessed tourists, this is a must-see – I’d try going during the week, as perhaps it’s less crowded then. Not only is some of the artwork iconic (you’ll probably recognise the Mortal Kiss by Dimitri Vrubel, which has Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev locking lips), but you’ll also get a rough idea of the scale of this monstrosity that divided people for all those years.
There’s no fee to see the wall.
One of the largest Jewish museums in Europe, I found this place to be thought-provoking. The art installations, in particular, are very powerful, and there’s something for all members of the family here (a lot of interactive spaces for the kids). I think you could easily spend four hours going through this place properly.
The museum pass covers entry to this museum
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This is absolutely a must-see while you’re in town. The memorial is incredibly powerful, and it’s not until you’re there that you realise the impact that it has. I won’t say much more – just go.
There’s no fee to visit the memorial