The Exilmuseum in Berlin launched a laboratory for participatory development

It can sometimes take a painfully long time from an idea to its realization. In 2013, Stefan Moses’ photographs appeared in the volume “Deutschlands Emigranten” (Emigrants to Germany) — portraits of people who had to leave Germany under National Socialism. Historian Christoph Stolzl, former director of the German Historical Museum, wrote the accompanying texts.

Danish architect Dorte Mandrup designed the museum to spread around the portal ruins (Dorte Mandrup/MIR).
Danish architect Dorte Mandrup designed the museum to spread around the portal ruins (Dorte Mandrup/MIR).

An unexpectedly large response to the volume led to the idea of ​​establishing a museum in Berlin to tell the stories and fates of German exiles. Soon after, Stolzl, who died last January, founded the Exilmuseum Berlin. Plans quickly took shape, thanks to a significant donation. Former German President Joachim Gauck was soon convinced to become a patron, and was joined by Herta Müller, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Completion in 2026 at the earliest

The site of the Anhalter Bahnhof, abandoned for decades, was quickly decided as a suitable location and in 2020 the foundation commissioned Dorte Mandrup from Denmark as the architect for the museum. But financing construction projects the way they need to be done, takes time and patience. The museum is currently set to open in 2026.

Until then, the foundation has opened the “Werkstatt Exilmuseum” (Exile Museum Workshop). Here, visitors can actively experience the creation of the museum and, ideally, help develop it.

In a room called the “Laboratory” there are tables with tabletops matching the size of the later exhibition rooms. With colored adhesive tape, floor plans can be designed and discarded, installations can be planned and redesigned. Another room, the “Studio,” interviews refugees then and now.

Bringing past and present together

On the second floor of the old building, portraits of exiles hang on two walls facing each other.

Willy Brandt, who fled Germany to Norway in 1933 because of political resistance to the Nazis, sees across the room a young woman who has just fled Afghanistan with her mother to Germany – in part because she was not allowed to go to school there.

The Exile Museum bridges the gap between then and now, with the events of the last century mirroring the current situation, with the ongoing war in Ukraine as well as countless people fleeing their conflict-torn countries or desperate attempts to reach Europe via immigration. Mediterranean Sea.

A flip-dot display hangs from the ceiling — the type of mechanical display board often found in train stations or airports with flipping numbers to represent the day’s schedule. Individual flip-dots rotate and constantly display new quotes from people who had to flee their homeland: “The body is here now” is one example. It is impossible to distinguish whether the statements are from 1933 or 2023.

About 20 people came to the workshop for the first guided tour of the day during the opening weekend on March 25-26.

After members of the press attended the workshop, the participants were more interested in discussing the concept of the upcoming museum than debating the issue of exile. Among the questions discussed was the museum’s funding, and how it would not overlap in terms of content with the Documentation Center for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation, which opened in June 2021 down the street.

Historic site of expulsion

The workshop will be open every Thursday from 3 to 6 pm – several workshops are planned – with young people, on the topic of dance and the program series “Exile on film” in cooperation with the Deutsche Kinemathek. In addition, the authors will discuss the topic “Writing in Exile” at the reading.

Anhalter Bahnhof in the Kreuzberg district was one of Berlin’s most important long-distance train stations during the Empire and the Weimar Republic. As the National Socialists gained strength, and especially after Adolf Hitler seized power in the spring of 1933, many exiles left the city via the Anhalter Bahnhof. From 1942, the station was used by the Nazis to deport Jews to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

After the demolition of the station in 1959, only the demolished portal remains, which will be the front of the new museum building.

The land is owned by the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, which supports the project. The plan is to give the property to the Museum Foundation through hereditary building rights. The budget committee of the newly elected House of Representatives has yet to approve it. And finally, of course, financing still needs to be clarified.

Initially, the museum was built entirely with private funds, but the construction cost, originally estimated at €30 million ($32.5 million), has since doubled, mainly due to a general increase in energy and raw material costs as a result of Russia. War in Ukraine. Some €20 million has been raised from private donations, but €40 million is still needed. The foundation is expecting contributions from the public sector.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by John Silk.

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