Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

John K. Peck gets an Object Lesson at Berlin’s Museum der Dinge…

Image by Lara Merrington
Image by Lara Merrington

If you’ve never visited Berlin’s Museum der Dinge – in English, “Museum of Things” – its dryly reductive name serves as a perfect introduction.

The collection consists of endless rows of, yes, things: ashtrays, coffee mugs, toy cars, rusted iron tools, engine parts, buttons and knobs, needles and thread, sex toys, weapons, communist kitsch, the endless ephemera of capitalism – just about anything small enough to fit into a glass display case.

Founded in the 1970s, the museum in its current form is a wild, pluralistic examination of the ideas of the German Werkbund, itself established in 1907 as a lobbying group made up of craftsmen, designers, artists, architects, and businessmen. The Werkbund sought to both valorize good design principles within Germany and promote the soundness of German goods abroad.

The organization’s early history was one of rather severe assignations of “good” versus “bad” design (manifested most strongly in early Werkbund member Gustav Pazaurek’s “Cabinet of Bad Taste” – a collection of the worst offenders of the era). Hindsight nearly always favors the legacy of the Werkbund’s shorter-lived academic sibling/offspring, the Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus, which closed in 1933, is often remembered as a heroic bastion of artistic freedom that was crushed by Nazi fascism. The Werkbund, on the other hand, was a larger and more fluid organization, and had a longer (and thus more uncomfortable) history of collaboration with the Nazis, who found the Werkbund’s tenets to be, at least until the late 1930s, mostly in line with their own aesthetics of tribute and geometric severity.

The dissolution of the Bauhaus saw its members, and thus its message, spread worldwide; the Werkbund, on the other hand, restarted in the early 1950s and remained a distinctly German institution.

Image by Lara Merrington
Image by Lara Merrington

While a museum based on the Werkbund could be an exercise in cold austerity, the displays themselves are far from sterile: nearly all have at least a few fascinating objects, and many are outright hilarious. One shelf consists entirely of reproductions of the Mona Lisa, with some amazing pre-Photoshop face substitutions; another displays the worst offenders in the field of ceramic kitsch, including an ashtray bordered by a lovingly-rendered ceramic pickle.

A particularly great display shows the history of the telephone, certainly one of the world’s great inventions, through its ugliest manifestations, from lime-green rotaries to massive, brick-like 1980s mobiles to flimsy, breakable modern burners in glittery cases.

Curator Imke Volkers describes the museum’s goal as a re-democratizing of the austere good-vs-bad mentality of the early Werkbund. Art museums normally represent an artist or idea by, in her words, “selecting one piece, removing it from its context and putting it on a pedestal.”

It’s an approach that, while perhaps making for focused and appealing exhibits, doesn’t represent the true history of design in the 20th century. If standard curation is the act of selecting a few trees to represent the forest, the Museum der Dinge brings the rest of the forest along as well.

“Design is industrial, and therefore plural,” Volkers says. “The museum uses the Werkbund idea of right and wrong without judgment; it exists as a platform for discussion.”

Image by Lara Merrington
Image by Lara Merrington

Far from being haphazard, though, the displays reveal an incredibly meticulous mindset in their layouts. Some shelves consist only of a single color, others of one object reproduced numerous times, like a display of prayer trinkets that reduces spiritual iconography to an absurd conveyor-belt sameness.

The displays of Nazi kitsch (complete with swastika balloons and a black velvet Hitler pillow) are at once hilarious and horrific, and there are countless objects peppering the collection that defy any rational explanation.

The collection also has a modest number of larger pieces, including a selection of furniture from throughout the 20th century and a complete Frankfurt Kitchen. Special shows and exhibits take place throughout the year, and 2014 will see an exhibit commemorating the centennial of the intended first Werkbund exhibition in 1914, as well as the Great War that caused its cancellation.

With so many objects under one roof, visitors may even stumble upon a forgotten piece of ephemera from their own lives, an experience that instantaneously makes the lofty and storied word “design” become something intimate and personal. Whatever the result, it’s this combination of playfulness and relentless curation that makes its thousands of objects things, rather than mere stuff.


Museum der Dinge

 Oranienstraße 25, 10999 Berlin

U: Kottbusser Tor

Open: Thu-Mon 12 – 19

Admission: €5 / €3 red.

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