May 23, 2018

Berlin - Topography of Terror

Students in the Topography of Terror exhibition.
17 May 2018
On the morning of May 17th, our group visited the Topography of Terror Museum. Located at the location of many important former Nazi buildings, the exhibits here focus on a perpetrator perspective by trying to explain how the Nazis logistically committed a genocide. The museum did this by explaining events in a thorough, chronological way, starting with what Berlin was like before World War II, then moving into discussing the actual Holocaust and its aftermath, including the Nuremberg Trials. 
A lot of our experiences at the Topography of Terror were filtered through our tour guide, who took us around and explained small parts of each exhibit. Though it was nice to have someone around to explain things from an outside perspective and to answer questions, having a tour guide also felt limiting at times, since there were many really interesting looking exhibits that I was excited about, but was never able to look at. Overall, our visit focused only on the parts of the exhibits that our tour guide discussed --though there was a lot of writing available to look at, we had to step away from the group to read them. 
Content-wise, the information our tour guide discussed was similar to the information we learned in class, although some of the things we learned in the museum expanded upon that information. For example, we learned about the SS in advance, but at the museum we learned a lot about specific branches of the SS, as well as specific members of those branches. While some of this information was valuable, a lot of it felt repetitive.
It seemed like there were a lot of tour groups around the museum, so it would be interesting to learn if this is meant to be the norm. In our group's experience, the presence of a carefully planned tour in combination with a text-heavy museum caused some tension, so I would be interested in learning how the museum officially wants this to play out.
Another tension within the museum was how many different types of exhibits there were. For example, there was a large, modern, indoor building with computer displays, while outside there were much older excavated former Nazi buildings. Besides this dichotomy, there was also a large intact segment of the Berlin Wall, which our tour guide said was mainly a coincidence, and not a main focus of the museum. Personally, I feel like having as museum with various disjointed parts is fine, since in this case they were all given adequate physical and mental space, and all generally focused around modern German history.
It was really interesting to see other people around this museum experiencing the same things as us, since the Topography of Terror was the most crowded museum we had been to at that point of the trip. Watching crowds of people speaking different languages made me wonder where all of the visitors came from. Additionally, I was curious about how a visitor from Germany might perceive this museum, given that it is a perpetrator site.
Without knowing how typical our tour experience was, it is hard to know how well this museum educates the public, German and otherwise. However, it is worth noting that the Topography of Terror had an excellent website, and also hosts a foundation that does a lot of research and publishing work about the Holocaust. As a result, I imagine they make an important positive impact, though it is hard to know firsthand as museum outreach was not explicitly showcased in our tour.
Most of the questions I had about the Topography of Terror resulted from the fact that we were not able to visit the entire museum. For example, there was a temporary exhibit about the People's Court of early Nazi Germany that I wasn't familiar with and would have loved to see. Additionally, without spending more time at this museum and in Berlin, it is hard to know of the impact of the Topography of Terror on the greater German community, which is something I was curious about. Regardless, visiting this museum was a great way to brush up on Holocaust knowledge at the beginning of our trip, especially before the much less traditional Berlin Jewish Museum that we visited later that day.
Group 2: Isabel Carleton, Steven Kish, Alyssa Pauly (Author: Isabel Carleton)