{Germany} Behind the Scenes at the MfK Berlin Depot

August 24, 2015

Germany

After an involuntary yet semi-self-imposed summer break (we didn’t manage to sort out internet at our new apartment in time), Museum Diary is now reconnected and back on track! Just in time for Berlin’s up-coming annual ‘Lange Nacht der Museen’ (Long Night of Museums). As a precursor to the night itself, I was invited by Livekritik last week to take part in an exclusive tour of the Museum für Kommunikation’s Berlin depot, one of a series of depot tours organised by Kulturprojekte Berlin’s ‘Lange Nacht’ team.

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Many people don’t know that just a fraction of most museums’ collections are on display. The Museum für Kommunikation is no different. The museum is actually one of three sites – the others are in Frankfurt and Nuremberg – with around 4,000 objects regularly on show in their permanent exhibitions in Berlin. The depot, a beautiful brick building dating back to the late 1800s which originally served as a grain store, houses around another 1.5 million objects! The main focus of the collections there is everything related to letters, the postal system and the culture around writing. Larger objects such as postal vehicles or telephone exchanges are housed at a depot near Frankfurt, and there is also a philatelic archive in Bonn with around 20 million stamps.

MfK Berlin Depot - Stamps

Anyway, back to Berlin. As a huge fan of postal museums, and with my new year’s resolution to write more snail mail, this invitation was a museum geek dream come true. After a short(ish) introduction to the history of the museum, the depot and the collections, our guide – who was unmistakably passionate about his work – proceeded to show us around all corners of the depot, starting with the preparation room, where objects are brought together for up coming special exhibitions and staff can create test displays etc. I didn’t take any photos because, you know, top secret!

MfK Berlin Depot - postal coach model

Next was a visit to the ‘Kleindepot’, or small depot. Basically a room full of cardboard boxes, filled with historical letters. There is a saying among curators that goes “Das Herz des Sammlers schlägt in der Schachtel” (the heart of the collector beats in a box). Here you will find the largest collection in Germany of personal letters, including around 100,000 sent by soldiers via ‘Feldpost’, the German military postal service, most of which have been donated by members of the public. The main focus is World War 2, with around 20,000 letters from World War 1. What makes the collection extra special, is that in many cases photographs of the letter writers have also been collected/ donated. According to our guide, this is the most asked after collection in the depot. In addition there are around 7,000 letters written from ‘across the Wall’ during the separation of Germany, just a fraction of the 20 billion letters sent during that time.

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From a room full of cardboard boxes we went to a room full of drawers. And inside those drawers, maps. Maps! Oh my. I told you I was in museum geek Heaven! Our apartments are always plastered with maps. And the Husband works for a mapping company. So you could say maps are big favourites in our household. The collection holds around 30,000 maps, including an incredible collection of ‘traffic’ maps from the 19th century showing postal routes – including road networks, post offices, and stations for changing over horses. Also amazingly intricate maps for working out the distances between destinations – up until 1867, postage in Germany was calculated according to distance, before it switched over to being calculated by weight.

MfK Berlin Depot - globes

MfK Berlin Depot - postal route map

MfK Berlin Depot - distance map

After the letters and maps, we were shown through various rooms holding some of the larger collections, with many items on open display. I have to hold up my hand and guiltily admit that I stopped listening a bit at this point. Besides having a rather short attention span, the temptation to just wander through the aisles, marvel at the amazing things on the plinths and shelves, and soak in the atmosphere of it all was just too big… Here are some more photographs of the remaining collections we saw:

Post Boxes

MfK Berlin Depot - red and blue post boxes

MfK Berlin Depot - yellow post boxes

The history of post boxes in Germany was interesting to hear. Until 1871, post boxes could be found in all kinds of colours including white, grey, bronze, green and blue. In 1872, ‘Prussian Blue’ was introduced for all states governed by the ‘Reichspost’, and by the mid 1920s blue was the prevailing colour for post boxes across all of Germany. In 1934, after the National Socialists came in to power, the colour of post boxes changed to red. And in 1946, after the war ended, they were again all repainted, this time to yellow. The yellow has gone through various incarnations since its introduction, from ‘Honiggelb’ (honey yellow), to ‘Rapsgelb’ (rape seed yellow), to the current ‘Ginstergelb’ (genista yellow – also known as ‘broom’, which covers the hills around Edinburgh in a yellow blanket, just as an aside).

Weights and Measures

MfK Berlin Depot - scales

MfK Berlin Depot - historic scale

As anyone who has ever sent a parcel or an overweight letter can imagine, weighing scales of all shapes and sizes form a formidable part of the collection.

The Furniture Store

MfK Berlin Depot - letter racks

MfK Berlin Depot - chairs

Specially designed chairs made sitting at post office counters for hours more comfortable.

The Textile Store

MfK Berlin Depot - textile collection

MfK Berlin Depot - postal uniforms

Postal uniform jackets through the ages.

Transport

MfK Berlin Depot - postal sledge

As mentioned above, the big postal vehicles are housed elsewhere, but the Berlin depot has a sizeable collection of yellow bicycles, and even a postal sledge!

MfK Berlin Depot - pneumatic tube

One of the objects we saw at the end of the tour really stood out for me – a capsule from Hamburg’s pneumatic postal system, which was in use from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. The giant capsule could hold thousands of letters, and could cover a distance of 3.5km in about 1.5 minutes – a postal truck during rush house would take 30 minutes for the same route. Unfortunately, shifts in the ground led to constants cracks in the tube network, causing the capsules to get stuck, so the system was eventually abandoned.

MfK Berlin Depot - signs

So, that was a little glimpse of our amazing behind the scenes depot tour. Many thanks to Livekritik and Kulturprojekte Berlin’s ‘Lange Nacht’ team for the incredible opportunity! The depot is not a public collection, and open by appointment only. However, anyone who wants to use the collection for research purposes can put in a request for access. Or, if you find yourself near Frankfurt, the depot at Heusenstamm apparently offers monthly tours around the collections there.

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