On November 19th, 1989, East and West Berlin were reunited at Checkpoint Charlie, and five other checkpoints along the Berlin Wall’s length, followed by the fall of the Wall itself. I was just ten years old at the time and lived across the world in small-town Australia. I’d not known of the building of the Wall in 1961, and the incredible event of it coming down following those first crossings through checkpoints. I’m sure that it made news across the world, but I certainly don’t recall it from that young of an age. So it was that it didn’t cross my mind for years to come.
It wasn’t until late high school that I took German language classes and learned of the separation through the history and culture that my teacher included in his lessons. A few years later, I decided to take German again, as an elective during my Bachelor of Arts studies. This renewed my interest in German language and culture and as I was amidst my anthropology and museum studies years, I’d started to hear about what an incredible destination Berlin was for museum lovers (as well as being highly recommended to visit overall).
My final year of undergraduate studies was looming in 2002, and it was the perfect time for me to dash off in the summer months for a trip that would take me to England, Germany, Mexico and the United States of America. After a quick stop in Frankfurt, I spent most of my time in Germany in Berlin, soaking up the atmosphere, the history and visiting as many museums as I could during my stay. (I would go back a few times while living in London, UK, to partake in the Long Night of the Museums as well as more wandering of the city in general - it’s irresistible.)
Nearby what was once Checkpoint Charlie, there were sections of the Berlin Wall that I stopped by to see before visiting the site of the checkpoint as well as what is now the Mauer (Wall) Museum and Museum of Checkpoint Charlie. You can find them just south of the checkpoint on Friedrichstrasse, and a block or so away near the Topography of Terror (itself a valuable historical site to visit), and there are several spots around Berlin you can go to see segments of various sizes. Seeing pieces of the Wall around the city can make it easier to picture what it was like during the divided years of the Cold War - they are unmistakable relics of division.
Checkpoint Charlie was the better known of all the checkpoints along the Berlin Wall, and the one which Allied forces used to cross the border. The guardhouse that stood there originally was relocated to the Allied Museum after the fall of the Wall. In 2000, a replica of the guardhouse was unveiled as a memorial, nearby the reproduction of the famous ‘You Are Leaving the American Sector’ sign (the original sign is inside the museum itself.) I’m always someone who feels that these tangible signs of history have quite an impact. But when I consider all of the pieces of the wall and these quite obvious replica representations of the era, it pales in comparison to the experience of walking through the museum itself. Every piece of history and story in those walls has an intense emotional impact.
I was surprised to learn that the opening of the earliest iteration of the museum was only a little over a year after the German Democratic Republic constructed the Berlin Wall. The museum’s founder is quoted as saying “as close to injustice as possible, that is where human greatness becomes the most apparent,” aiming to make real change by situating the museum as a place of not just documentation of the Wall and division of the city, but to protest it. Shortly after opening, the museum moved to its current location right by the former border. It would be fascinating to see just how the museum morphed and developed over the years leading up to the fall of the wall, and the ways it grew after. As it was in 2002 (and on a return visit in 2009), it was an incredible collection of galleries that display true human resilience. It remains, to this day, one of the most affecting experiences I’ve had visiting a museum.
The main focus of the Museum, of course, is the period of the border closure and the impact it had on both the East and West. Permanent exhibitions walk the visitor through the years of the border closure and the existence of the Berlin Wall (and its fall), the focal point of Checkpoint Charlie, and the experiences of those who had tried to escape into West Berlin (successfully or otherwise). There are no airy, spacious gallery rooms here - as you meander through the exhibitions you’ll be surrounded by panels of text and photos, screens with footage, and unique artefacts used to emphasize the seriousness of many of the stories being told.
I’m usually a bit of a stickler for modern museum text-panel styles (larger font, a lot of space and the like), but in the case of the Mauer Museum / Museum am Checkpoint Charlie, I can forgive them their sins. Having had such an early start to their space and being a highly-trafficked tourist spot gives them little wiggle room to bring things up to speed. In some ways, the small spaces and ubiquity of visuals force you to get up close and personal with the history of the Wall, its champions and its refugees. Needless to say, there is a lot to see and take in here - I’d suggest at least 1.5-2 hours if you want to get the most out of your visit.
Having walked around Berlin and seen the fragments of the Wall and then learned about the years of the divided city, I ended up feeling more emotional than I think I ever have been during a museum visit. I’m always thrilled to wander a museum to learn, and be amazed and to experience things I’d never get to, otherwise. But the stories of people’s attempts to cross the border (no matter what the result) left me reeling. Around the museum are modified cars used to smuggle people, a canoe and a mini hand-held submarine used to escape via water, a number of suitcases and other containers adapted to fit people inside - these tangible, life-sized pieces of evidence that were created out of desperation and innovation so people could escape to freedom and safety.
Feeling the triumph of people who made it out was incredible. And while nearly 5,000 people crossed from East to West successfully over the years of separation, a number weren’t so lucky. The stark fact of the deaths of people seeking freedom isn’t something the museum shies away from. It is as important and meaningful as every other story told within the museum’s walls and something that left me in tears standing among other visitors. I still can’t quite explain what the mix of cruel history and human optimism did to me, quite honestly. Being among such powerful representations of this period of time I was barely alive during was poignant. Seeing the failures and triumphs of people was inspirational. The footage of people reuniting after the fall of the wall, celebrating and being free, will be something that remains with me for a long time to come.
I truly can’t recommend visiting the Mauer Museum / Museum at Checkpoint Charlie enough. There are more museums in Berlin than one person could possibly see even in just one short trip, but I urge you to bump this to the top if you’re ever there. Give yourself the time to explore the surrounding area, too - the fragments and lengths of the wall nearby and just being in the streets and seeing the guardhouse replica really add something to the experience of visiting the museum. On top of the main focus of the museum, there are also exhibitions related to the larger issue of human rights around the world, contextualizing the era of the Wall as one of Germany’s darker times. Berlin will reward you in many ways, and seeing this museum will give you a greater appreciation for its history and people.
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Nicole Hoye is a lifelong museum fan who keeps a list of the museums she's been to, because she's just like that. Having studied Anthropology and Museum Studies in Australia, and working in museums there, she's moved onto London (UK) and worked at the British Museum for a while and now lives in Toronto and works at the Royal Ontario Museum. When she's not visiting museums or working in them, she loves to play board games and hang out with her dog Jake.