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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the DDR Museum in Berlin

What is the DDR Museum

The DDR Museum is an interactive museum that explores what it was like to be a citizen in East Germany (known in German as the Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR).

DDR Museum Entrance

Joyofmuseums, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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DDR Museum History

The DDR Museum, which opened in 2006, offers a unique sensory experience to its visitors, who step into the shoes of those who lived behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, the political boundary dividing East and West Europe in the second half of the 20th century. The museum was founded by ethnologist and businessman Peter Kenzelmann, who was disappointed not to find a museum of East Germany when he visited Berlin from his home in Freiburg, and decided to fill the gap. Interactive and fun, the DDR Museum brings East Germany’s recent history to life in an engaging way. ‘We do not hide all of our exhibits behind glass but instead encourage our visitors to touch, hold and interact with a range of objects and installations’, the museum’s curators explain.

Inhale the smell of brown coal, pumped from a vent to simulate the poor air quality caused by polluting factory fumes; get behind the wheel of a Trabant P601, one of the few common makes of car in the former East Germany; take a seat in the mocked up ‘DDR’ sitting room, fully furnished with hundreds of original objects; experience being under surveillance by a ‘covert listening device’; tap away on an old Erika typewriter, typical of the era; slip into some authentic DDR clothes; rummage in drawers and peek into cabinets to discover everyday artefacts and documents. In total, the DDR Museum’s collection contains more than 250,000 original objects, all of which are catalogued in a database on the museum’s website. Based on rigorous research, the exhibition focuses on the history of everyday life, exploring many different aspects of ordinary East Germans’ lives during the DDR’s four decades as a distinct country. Divided into themed areas, including ‘scarcity, ‘school’, ‘youth culture’ and ‘leisure’, it offers hands-on history at its best, allowing visitors to drink in the touch and feel of daily life in East Germany.

Today, communist East Germany is often presented as one of two extremes: a Stasi-controlled state, in which ordinary people were constantly vulnerable and afraid, or a socialist utopia. The popularity of films such as Goodbye Lenin! and The Lives of Others has no doubt helped to cement these stereotypes. In reality, there was no one-size-fits-all experience: if you were Christian, gay, a political dissenter or an environmental activist, you were much more likely to experience state restrictions. For others, full employment together with subsidised food and rent were very positive aspects of life in East Germany. A visit to the DDR Museum offers some interesting and thought-provoking insights into a uniquely fascinating time in Germany’s recent history and what it was like to be an East German citizen. Such is the popularity of the museum that it was shortlisted for the European Museum of the Year Award in 2008 and 2012.

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