Memories in Berlin

I was once told that written archives do not make good exhibition materials. My contention was that they did if they were displayed with care and due consideration for the audience and in conjunction with other more primarily visual materials. This was amply demonstrated to me by the exhibitions that I visited in Berlin last week. On a warm spring day I spent a few hours walking along the former line of the Berlin Wall and past fragments that remained standing in a peaceful and slightly unkempt cemetery, as well as a former watchtower standing incongruously amongst modern apartment buildings. I then arrived at the main Berlin Wall Memorial – a short length of the wall that has been maintained as a monument and, unlike most of the remaining fragments, is clean of all graffiti. Opposite the wall is the Information Centre. It is quite modest in size and has a simple layout, with one main exhibition area showing a small but effective display that mixes silent film footage (all the more effective for being silent), arresting and shocking photographs, audio reports and copies of archival material, including newspaper reports, personal testaments and postcards.

An even more memorable and haunting experience was Peter Eisenmann’s new Holocaust Memorial and the new information centre beneath. The memorial itself consists of 2,711 concrete blocks (‘stelae’) arranged in undulating rows with narrow gaps between them. The information centre is everything such a place should be. It has a sombre and quiet atmosphere and it tells the story of the Holocaust simply but very effectively. There are only a few rooms and they are themed, including one on families, one on individuals and one on locations. The first room consisted of illuminated areas on the floor that corresponded to the stelae above and displayed blown-up copies of archive materials, mainly personal letters, including one written in haste by a woman on a train who did not know its destination – it ended at a concentration camp. She flung the letter from the train and a local farmer found it and posted it on. The families room is deeply affecting, with the stories of 13 families brought to life through 13 panels showing photographs, archives, some film footage and short explanations of the plight of the families, with a record of those who died and those who survived. Much of the archive material comes from the families themselves and in fact one panel has very few photographs or documents, reflecting the reality that most families lost all of their personal possessions and for many people who perished in the concentration camps there may be no photographic or other personal evidence of their life before the War. The personal memorials room dedicated to individuals is a dark, empty space, illuminating one name on the wall at a time and telling a short history of that person, whether it be a 5 year old girl from Poland or a 75 year old man from Austria.

For me the Holocaust Memorial and information centre were very moving and affecting. A great deal of thought and care must have gone into the design of the centre, and the exhibits were obviously chosen very carefully so that the rooms were not overfull of masses of information but kept largely empty, with the archive materials used to great effect and speaking volumes about the past. My only reservation is that this is not a memorial for all who died in the genocide and that Berlin appears to be ending up with a number of victims’ memorials and a number of arguments over who should get what and where.

For me, Berlin is a city where archives really do play a central and very noticeable role in telling the story of a city and particularly of the dark and difficult events of Second World War.