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Berlin is Bearing up well after its troubled history

18:10 11 June 2008

Exterior Märkische Museum

Exterior Märkische Museum

Both sides of the unified German capital house museums, many of them so small you might miss them, writes Jenny Woolf In less than 20 years, the re-unified Berlin has become one of the most exciting modern cities in the world. Its major sights and museum

Both sides of the unified German capital house museums, many of them so small you might miss them, writes Jenny Woolf

In less than 20 years, the re-unified Berlin has become one of the most exciting modern cities in the world. Its major sights and museums are well-known, but several of its smaller museums are no less fascinating.

The Bauhaus Archive in Tiergarten covers the history of the famous art and design school which ended its life in Berlin in 1933. The teachers included Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer, and the archive contains a rich assortment of metalwork, pottery, architectural work, furniture and textiles.

It is housed in the Tiergarten area of Berlin, in an odd, spiky white building, designed by the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus style veered between careful craftsmanship and almost brutalist mass production, and even after seventy years, the energy crackles. Top of the bill is a superb model of Mies van der Rohe's German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. It is sleek, elegant, perfectly proportioned and way, way ahead of its time.

An excellent English audio commentary explains the ideas behind the work, and there's also some welcome information about the all-women Bauhaus weaving workshops, whose talented director, Gunta Stolzl, experimented boldly with cellophane, rayon and even steel. This "women's work" was undervalued for years, and it's good to see it here.

The Bauhaus originated in what became East Germany - the DDR - which became isolated from the rest of the world, so the archive was deliberately situated in what used to be the capitalist enclave of West Berlin. Between 1946-1989, West Berlin was cut off by the Berlin Wall, and was a lonely speck of freedom amid the hundreds of surrounding kilometres of the DDR.

The DDR Museum, near Alexanderplatz, gives a fascinating insight into that now-vanished Communist regime. There are no precious objects here - "touch and feel" is emphasised, with cupboards full of polyester clothing to be examined and DDR programmes to be watched in a mock-up "Plattenbau" flat. There's even a virtual ride through a concrete estate in a genuine Trabi car. Only by actually sitting in one is it possible to realise how awful they were.

The museum explains the main ideas behind the DDR, so much better in theory than in practice. Those giant estates were ugly, but they totally abolished housing shortages. Education was rigorous, and children did not sit around idly after school - they joined the Young Pioneers. A little like Hitler Youth without the Hitler, the YP offered companionship and fun and was fondly remembered by many. Fitness and health were important, as shown by a slightly disconcerting section on Communist-style nudism.

"Lives of Others" it's not. The horrors of the police state are not downplayed, but many visitors seem to spend most of their visit exclaiming in delight over old favourites from their DDR childhoods - a valid, if unexpected, response.

According to the tourist office, many Berlin visitors hope to see Hitler's bunker, but it is flooded and inaccessible. A thought-provoking alternative is the powerful open air museum "Topography of Terror". It's in Niederkirchnstrasse, where the SS headquarters were. In this bleak field, alongside the only bit of the wall remaining in the city centre, many fine photographs are assembled. With commentaries in German and English, they trace the rise and aftermath of Nazism. Sensationalism is avoided, but some images, like those of grinning stormtroopers insulting Jews or posing before heaps of dead bodies, convey only too well how vile it all was.

The exhibition also celebrates heroic individuals who suffered on the site, and it does not flinch from describing the shameful post-war period when many of the worst criminals escaped scot-free. A museum building is now planned, but this huge open-air display seems more immediate and real than any indoor museum.

In fact Berlin has never been a place to go for a quiet settled life. The 100-year-old Markisches Museum tells the city's history, and a tough history it has been at times. The museum is a fine old building in the Mitte area, currently undergoing renovation. Its highlights include various huge and splendid models of Berlin, a gripping photographic archive, superb oil paintings of Berlin's industrial past and a collection of treasures of the craft guilds.

A particularly striking exhibit is a group of three painted iron bears of 1562. The bear is Berlin's symbol, and these three, snarling fiercely, convey the message that Berlin will fight on, no matter what befalls it. Modern Berlin is by no means free of problems - particularly financial ones - but if its present amazing energy and liveliness are anything to go by, then those bears are spot on.

Tourist information about Berlin is available at www.berlin-tourist-information.de

Contact the German National Tourist Office in the UK on 020-7317 0908.

Bauhaus Archive, Klingelhofer Strasse 14, www.bauhaus.de.

DDR Museum, Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 1, www.ddr-museum.de.

Topography of Terror, Niederkirchnerstrasse 8, www.topographie.de.

Markisches Museum, Am Kosllnischen Park 5.

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