John K. Peck becomes a Man of Letters at Berlin’s marvellous Alphabet Museum…
Long known to typophiles and curiosity-seekers worldwide (and featured in STB’s 100 Favourite Places), Berlin’s Buchstabenmuseum, or Museum of Letters, is finding itself increasingly in the mainstream. Founded in 2005, the museum is dedicated, in its own words, to “preserving, restoring and exhibiting signage from Berlin and around the world.”
In a city known as much for its underground art scene and off-the-beaten-path galleries as its world-class museums, the Buchstabenmuseum is right at home: it’s a collection that, despite (or perhaps due to) the industrial, function-based origin of its subject, still gives off a feeling of uncanniness and wonder.
The museum moved to its current digs, a former GDR supermarket across from Jannowitzbrücke station, in 2013. The facility space includes not only the building’s stone-floored interior, which constitutes the primary exhibition gallery, but also its partially-sheltered outdoor loading dock, where new acquisitions arrive weekly.
While the whole museum has a stark factory feel, the contrast between the indoor and outdoor spaces is nonetheless palpable: the interior has controlled lighting and excellent signage (much of it in English), while the exterior’s massive letters are stacked into beautiful, haphazard rows of semi-legibility.
Buchstabenmuseum co-founder Barbara Dechant grew up in Austria and remembers taking trips to Italy as a young girl, where, even before she could read, she was enthralled with the colourful metal-and-neon signs on buildings. Despite the museum’s rigorous cataloguing system, each sign manages to show its personality: “Some of our visitors like the technical details of the letters,” says Dechant, “some like the stories behind them, and some like the history. The old letters are disappearing, and we’re trying to save as many of them as we can.”
Fittingly, the current exhibition consists almost entirely of signage from Berlin, and with the wholesale redevelopment underway in the former Eastern sector, many of the museum’s recent acquisitions have necessarily been GDR-specific pieces. For older native Berliners, the signs on display are not just associative reminders of childhood – some may be the very signs they walked past as children.
The most spectacular of these rescued relics of the former East is the massive neon sign from the former Zierfische aquarium supply store, written in a stunning custom script font (outlined in bright yellow) and flanked by a pair of laconic, half-smiling blue fish with white neon bubbles. The sign takes up an entire wall and is displayed alongside its original sketch and a video interview with the sign’s creator.
Because most of the museum’s letters were designed to be mounted on far-off vantages – at the tops of buildings, above glowing marquees, across train platforms – viewing them up close reveals a more intimate side. With their surfaces of peeling paint and rusted metal (and even, in one case, clusters of dead vines), many of the letters take on the air of micro-ruins: viewed this close, they are not part of a landscape but are landscapes of their own.
Dechant loves the English word ‘character,’ both because it’s a synonym for ‘letter’ as well as the ideal descriptor for this phenomenon: “When you look at them up close, these letters are characters,” she says. “They’re very much like humans in how different they are.”
In recent years, the museum has seen a huge surge in visitors from all over the world, and in some ways it’s become a victim of its own popularity. While increased attendance has meant a bump in available funds, nearly all the money from ticket sales goes to rent and upkeep. In a museum run entirely by volunteers, the museum functions under the constant constraints of time and resources.
As the Buchstabenmuseum seeks out letters from further afield, it’s finding itself in need of larger forms of sponsorship and is looking into corporate donors or government grants (the latter of which involves near-prohibitive levels of red tape).
Despite these growing pains, the staff of volunteers is very welcoming, and typophiles can now even take home letters of their own from the tiny gift shop. With regular hours now fully in place (and an ever-growing collection of letters), the Buchstabenmuseum is fast on its way to becoming an integral part of Berlin’s museum circuit.
Holzmarktstraße 66, 10179 Berlin
Open: Thu-Sat 13 – 17
Admission: €6.50 / €3.50 red.