Here Time Becomes Space

11.07.2022Here Time Becomes Space

Museum on the move: the history of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and its collections is made accessible to everyone in the new Stabi Kulturwerk.

By Irene Bazinger

View of an exhibition with dark architecture
Poetry, music, globes, photography or fashion - the Stabi Kulturwerk opens on July 14, 2022 © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Staatsbibliothek Kulturwerk

If you happen to stroll past the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) at Unter den Linden and cast a glance across its magnificent facade, you can’t help but marvel at what a tremendous building it is! Often, you can hear the fountain splashing in the first courtyard, when the jets of water are shooting a few meters high. All around are walls, gates, windows, and the unmistakable shadows of the past. But what is tucked away in these venerable halls, in the shelves and cabinets of the Staatsbibliothek? What makes this library so special?

Exhibition of pictures and text
View of the exhibition © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Staatsbibliothek Kulturwerk

The curious can now find answers in entirely new ways, even if they are not students or researchers, or even library card holders. If the Staatsbibliothek, with its store of accumulated knowledge, offers gateways to the world, then a further gate is now being opened: the Stabi Kulturwerk offers visitors an impressive introduction to the institution and its collections.

Just walk through the main portal, past the fountain and the cafeteria, go indoors on the ground floor – and there you are at the entrance. You might expect to see a ticket counter, but there is none – and no admission fee. Just magical twilight revealing a cosmos of truth and wisdom that awaits the adventurous.

Filling a thousand square meters, the space contains black rooms for the permanent exhibition, white rooms for the temporary exhibitions, and a treasure chamber for the most precious showpieces. The latest technology brings ancient artifacts of our culture to life and make them more easily accessible.

A library playing the role of a museum – how did that happen? Carola Pohlmann, head of the Children’s and Young People’s Literature Department at the Staatsbibliothek, has been overseeing the Stabi Kulturwerk as project manager and coordinating curator since 2016. She has been the linchpin of the project, which now includes a team of 15 curators who have selected the exhibits. Pohlmann describes the concept of the exhibition this way: “We recount the history of the Staatsbibliothek by means of its holdings. This overlaps with the history of Berlin, of Germany, and the world generally. From the very beginning, the library was taken seriously as an important cultural institution. Situated in the center of the city, it was originally the “kurfürstliche” (electoral) library and later the “königliche” (royal) library. The inauguration of the new building on Unter den Linden was attended by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. The library was always involved in the events of the time, whether in social, cultural, or historical respects.”

Chronological and dual-track approach to library treasures

This involvement also defines the physical structure of the exhibition at the Stabi Kulturwerk: on the right-hand side, visitors can learn about the history of the library from its opening in 1661 as the Churfürstliche Bibliothek zu Cölln an der Spree (Electoral Library in Cölln on the Spree) to the present day; on the left side, they can learn about the history of the collections – about the acquisitions from various periods and the context of each. On the right, for example, is the Typographia Sinica, a small cabinet made of oak. It contains ten drawers with a total of 3,287 Chinese print types. It was presumably commissioned by the orientalist Andreas Müller (circa 1630–1694) in the interest of having his Sinological studies printed properly. In 1685, he gave them to the Churfürstliche Bibliothek.

Showcases in a black room
View of the exhibition © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Staatsbibliothek Kulturwerk

On the other side, there lies a military treatise (Königsberg, 1555) which was composed approximately a hundred years before the library was founded, but seems to have been of interest nonetheless to commanders at the time. This manuscript on the theory and practice of warfare is an original work by Albrecht von Brandenburg-Ansbach and includes plates with variations of battle formations.

The exhibition is structured chronologically in five sections and continues up to the present. But although everything may seem very finished and complete, that impression is mistaken. “The Stabi Kulturwerk is a museum in flux,” says Carola Pohlmann: “There will always be different things to see here at regular intervals.” In consultation with the conservators, in fact, the exhibits must be replaced at intervals of three to twelve months to avoid deterioration and ensure that they are preserved for future generations.

View of an exhibition with multiple showcases
View of the exhibition © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Staatsbibliothek Kulturwerk

That is especially applicable to the objects in the square room downstairs, which is quite rightly called the treasure room. There, the most precious objects from the long history of the Staatsbibliothek are presented, and these exhibits are changed every three months. Initially, they will include the Gutenberg Bible (1554/55), the “Kyrie eleison” from the original score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1733), select Orientalia and East Asian materials, journals of Alexander von Humboldt (1801/1802), early daguerreotypes (ca. 1850) – and the second edition of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter (1846).

Comfortable seating is provided in the middle of the room, so that visitors can contemplate the exhibits and their unique aura. The objects that are being shared with the public at the Stabi Kulturwerk are all originals. “We made a conscious decision not to use copies and facsimiles in the treasure room,” says Carola Pohlmann: “These days, especially, when there is a glut of imagery and so much is digitized, the original is hugely appreciated! We know that even if people have seen an object a hundred times as a reproduction, they really do want the chance to experience ‘the real thing’ at least once. We want to give them that chance.”

Showing the past, registering the present, imagining the future

Technology and didactics go hand in hand in this process. The exhibits are accompanied by multimedia content that conveys additional information. This is either supplied to visitors on mobile devices that they can borrow for the duration of the visit, or accessed on their personal smartphones. Audio and multimedia points are also installed in various rooms. Those interested in learning more about a particular topic can use QR codes to delve into the digital content. For example, they might view more pages of a manuscript that has caught their eye, given that only one or two pages can be shown in a display case.

Stabi Kulturwerk

Opening hours

  • Tue, Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun 10am to 6pm
  • Thu 10am to 8pm

Contact

  • Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 8, 10117 Berlin
  • +49 030 266 433 888

A different sort of exhibit is “Das Lebende Buch” (the living book). Here, the outstanding features of the Gutenberg Bible are conveyed via sophisticated multimedia – through expert commentary, films, and photographs that are automatically activated when the pages of the installation are turned. Visitors are expressly encouraged to touch and to turn the pages, as great emphasis is placed on the active participation of young and old. The exhibits are meant to appeal to children and teens as well as to adults, to Berliners and to people from near and far, to those with disabilities and those without. The Staatsbibliothek aims to be open to anyone with an interest in its holdings and to be accessible to a broader public than before. “The Stabi Kulturwerk isn’t just a museum that concentrates on the past; it will also incorporate references to the present and indicate what lies in store for the future,” explains Carola Pohlmann. “We want to have our finger on the pulse and illustrate developments in the library sector based on projects at the Staatsbibliothek.”

At the end of the exhibition, visitors end up in the historical rotunda, where there are no more exhibits, so that they can digest what they have seen and enjoy the bright and spacious architecture of Ernst von Ihnes. Here, they can also listen to a sound installation in which actors and actresses read statements about the Staatsbibliothek.

It only remains to mention the section of the Stabi Kulturwerk kept in a completely white decor, which is laid out parallel to the rooms of the permanent exhibition. This is where special, temporary exhibitions are presented, and these are likewise closely connected to the collections and the activities of the library. The first, on August 17, is Uncannily Fantastic – E.T.A. Hoffmann 2022, organized by the E.T.A. Hoffmann Portal of the Staatsbibliothek to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of this multitalented artist.

Dark exhibition room with multiple showcases
View of the exhibition © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Staatsbibliothek Kulturwerk

The partition walls are a flexible system that can be opened up in a variety of ways to create new and sometimes unexpected vistas – through a sequence of spaces, or between the permanent exhibition and the temporary exhibition. The exhibition content thus merges with the historical dimension to form a fascinating continuum through which visitors can move as they like. The overall experience of the Stabi Kulturwerk is captured wonderfully well in a phrase by Richard Wagner, whose contract with the music publisher Schott for the opera Parsifal in 1881 is held by the Music Department of the Staatsbibliothek. In the libretto , he wrote: “Here time becomes space.”

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