So while I’m looking for a new place, life, and work, goes on. In recent days, I’ve picked up a guidebook gig, and one of the chapters I have to do is museums. Which is great: I love museums, and if I had it to do all over again, I might well give in to the impulse I had in my teens to go to musem school and wind up making some dough. I’ve always loved the way a museum, properly done, is an alternative way of arranging knowledge. I’m used to doing it with words, but museums have to do it with objects. Just as there is with a book or essay, there’s an implicit agenda in a musem’s ordering of objects: a curator is arguing a position, and the viewer is obliged to sort out the information and react.
I started on Tuesday with a visit to the Deutsches Historisches Museum because although I’ve been to a bunch of shows in its I. M. Pei annex, I had yet to see the new permanent collection in the main building itself. Plus, I woke up that day feeling depressed and decided, on the principle of the blues, that immersing oneself in another’s misery might make me feel better.
Dunno if it worked, actually; I left the place feeling like my head was going to explode. But that’s getting ahead of myself. The permanent collection is divided in two: Roman times to World War I upstairs, and postwar through reunification downstairs. Right off the bat, there’s something odd, in that prehistory isn’t even touched on, and, thanks to the Neander river valley, if nothing else, Germany has a starring role in that. And anyway, those Germanic tribes must’ve come from somewhere. But you’re only a few meters inside by the time the Christians come on the scene, and the long road to the Holy Roman Empire isn’t far away. And so you stroll, as Teutonic knights head off to the Holy Land, Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door (an event the captions claim almost certainly didn’t happen), the French fight the Germans, the Germans fight the French, the Austrians fight the Turks, the Swedes fight the Poles, the Germans fight the French, the French fight the Germans, the Germans fight with themselves, and here comes the Congress of Vienna! Pretty soon it’s time for the Industrial Revolution, paintings give way to photographs, there’s a nice little pair of rooms up a flight of stairs with Jugendstil stuff in them, with a film of German soldiers jamming into trains on their way to the front playing on the downstairs wall just inches away. Next thing you know, you’re back on the landing and it’s time to go downstairs.
I went through the downstairs rather quicker than I would have liked to; closing time was looming in an hour or so, and I also knew this part of the story better than I did the other half (not that I knew the first half much better after a couple of hours with it, for which I blame my education as much as anything). I also had more tools with which to assess the artifacts, and I have to say, the collection is amazing. Also, the way they partition the post-war stuff the way the country was partitioned is done extremely well; you can see the stuff on the other side, but getting there is another matter, although it’s easily enough achieved, of course. (I should mention, though, that the struggle to end the DDR is infinitely better-presented at the almost-unpronounceable-by-non-Germans Zeitgeschichtlisches Forum Leipzig, which is almost reason enough to visit Leipzig all by itself).
But as I walked out into the dark of Unter den Linden, I was experiencing a sensation not unlike vertigo because of all of the captions I’d read. Now, there was a time when all of Berlin’s museums’ captions were in German only, and there was no way to know what was going on unless you could read German. (Lest this seem a bit of xenophobia, I invite you to go into your nearest American museum and see how much information there is in any other language but English). Now, however, as Berlin’s museums are slowly integrating collections divided by the Wall, bilingual German and English captions are showing up. The weirdest of all, though, are in the DHM, which erupt into inexplicable italics every now and again. And it’s not because the words are untranslatable German ones like Heimat or Lebensraum, because they’re not. They’re just random words italicized (a practice I’ve now demonstrated enough and will cease; you’re welcome), in both the German and the English texts. I don’t get it, but it sure does slow you down.
The next day I went to the Bode-Museum, which is practically my next-door neighbor. I had no idea what was in it, because back before it got dome-to-dungeon redone, the best anyone could tell me was “coins and stuff.” Well, the coins are still there, but so is a load of Byzantine and medieval and early renaissance sculpture, painting, and bits of architecture. I made the acquaintance of the amazing woodcarver Erasmus Grasser, who flourished in Munich between 1474 and 1518, and was boggled by an entire room of stuff by Tilman Riemenschneider, whose ability to represent facial expressions and even emotions is unparallelled in his time. The Bode is all about space, which is why it’s particularly good for sculpture; there are two domes letting daylight in, and a gigantic “basilica” with “chapels” on the sides which allow for the display of groupings of renaissance and baroque religious statuary, paintings, and altars.
Here, the captions weren’t annoyingly italicized, and for the most part the English was pretty good. Well, until the one where it really wasn’t. My eyes were glazing over on the second floor, what with an oversupply of baroque bronze sculpture, but I did stop to read about how they were mass-produced, and I came upon this: “The bronze-smith then prepares the metal to be porn into the mould at this time.” The “then…at this time” is bad enough, but…ummm… The piece used to demonstrate this is a naked statue of Mars, anatomically correct, and the first thing that came to my mind was that it isn’t porn til it’s poured.
This leads me to give voice to what I’ll call Augustine’s Complaint, because it’s been voiced over and over by reader and commenter here Steven Augustine. There are tons of underemployed writers and editors, native English-speakers, here in Berlin. Pay us to proofread this stuff, and we’ll turn it into idiomatic English that won’t embarrass you. Really. We may not have doctorates in English, but we do read and write it quite fluently, idiomatically, and we offer really, really affordable rates. However, time and again, it’s the “qualified” Germans who render this English text, and it shows. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who wrote for a (now defunct, I hope) terrible magazine published by Berliner Tourismus und Marketing for distribution in hotels which were BTM members, called Berlin|Berlin. It was German and English…sorta. My friend, a journalism school graduate, raised bilingually in America, and veteran of some of America’s top magazines, wrote an article for them and was told by the editor that her English was terrible. The “corrected” article, of course, was a total howler.
At any rate, I ended this week’s museum-going at the Pergamon, whose holdings aren’t of as much interest to me, although it’s swallowed the Museum of Islamic Art from West Berlin, and you can’t help but be awed by a museum that contains not just artifacts, but whole complexes of ancient buildings and a huge hunk of the city wall of Babylon itself. There, the English captioning is often inscrutable and nearly always polished for maximum dullness. They’re going to do renovations there in the not-too-distant future, and I wonder if this will mean dealing with this problem. Probably not; they have a reputation to uphold, after all.