Journeys to the past

Interactive historical tours of Berlin are all the rage right now. From the grim reality of Stasi oppression to the sound of cicadas in Pergamon , technology is overlaying the past with the present.

Image for Journeys to the past

Interactive historical tours of Berlin are all the rage right now. From the grim reality of Stasi oppression to the sound of cicadas in Pergamon , technology is overlaying the past with the present.

The jail: Stasi memorial goes high-tech

Lichtenberg’s Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial – once the central detention centre of the GDR’s secret police – is known for its no nonsense approach to showcasing state oppression, through guided tours led by former political prisoners. In April, in the wake of the very public sacking of Hubertus Knabe – the institution’s director of 18 years, over allegations of sexual harassment – the memorial opened its most high-tech venture to date: Stasi in Berlin: Surveillance and Repression in East and West, a multimedia exhibition for visitors to visualise the depth and breadth of the Stasi’s extensive network throughout both sides of the city – until its official demise in January 1990.

As you enter the exhibition space, located in one of the buildings adjoining the jail, a 160-sqm aerial photograph of present-day Berlin is spread across the floor and up the walls, with white LEDs marking the Mauer’s old route. With the help of headphones and an iPad, you can identify locations used by the GDR secret police as you walk across both sides of the city, with over 4200 clickable green-dot points, 100 of them providing further information on Stasi operations, escape attempts, resistance movements, kidnappings, unsolved cases and more, all in the form of slideshows or videos. As expected, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg and Lichtenberg are seas of green, but there are also some surprises in the West: at Bahnhof Zoo, for example, the ticket offices were run by Stasi agents. After 25 minutes, the tablet switches mode and you’re now asked to pick from 15 individual stories that take you across the city in what in-house curator Andreas Engwert likens to a “scavenger hunt”. You can follow the fate of a young party-member who failed to abide by the SED party line in the 1950s, from her arrest in Charlottenburg to her detention in a gruesome jail on Albrechtstraße in what is today’s Ukrainian embassy; or you can watch a young man getting in serious trouble for trying to leave his own Stasi past behind. The visit is timed for an hour, after which the map and iPads reset. The exhibition is the result of two and a half years of hard work by a four-member team led by self-professed “map nerd” Engwert, which included trawling through more than 10,000 photos and 400 files from the Stasi archive. This and the immersive quality of the show, as well as the poignancy of the individual stories, make Stasi in Berlin a worth-while detour to the GDR past, and true to the memorial’s curatorial spirit, it remains refreshingly clear of gimmicky infotainment.

Stasi in Berlin: Surveillance and Repression in East and West Through Mar 31, 2020 Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, Lichtenberg

The app: Berlin time travel from your sofa

Crowd-sourced city maps are a thing these days, but a good history map is a tall order – as evidenced by previous attempts failing to motivate contributors all the way to satisfactory results (the Jewish Museum’s attempt to map Jewish Places fell short of covering its topic). Launched last February, berlinHistory might be the first free interactive map that delivers, mostly thanks to the scope of the archival material involved, allowing users to travel in space and time thanks to a one-to-one layering of history over Berlin’s streets and squares.

Just imagine a map of the city covered in colour-coded historical periods, ranging from “before 1933 – Prussia/Empire/Weimar” to “Future Plans”. All marked locations are clickable and lead you to text, audio files (many translated into English), slideshows and embedded YouTube videos. You can opt to layer your map with pre-war city plans and old aerial photographs to see how Berlin has changed. The app also offers themed galleries, including audio tours, facts on ghost stations, anecdotes about the Wall or the construction of the TV Tower among others. Rainer E. Klemke, the retired Senat consultant for museums and memorials behind the project, enlisted over 20 institutions, including the German Resistance Memorial Center, the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Landesarchiv and the Deutsches Historisches Museum to compile the app, hence the sheer wealth of material accessible here – which might also be berlinHistory’s biggest flaw: there’s so much, it’s intimidating! But the bigger your screen, the more fun it is, and it’s easy to get lost while time travelling through the city. True to its crowdsourced origin, berlinHistory also offers users the chance to contribute historical documents and POI suggestions, so feel free to chime in.


Image for Journeys to the past
The museum: Strolling through Pergamon city

Fancy a trip further back in history? Pergamon Museum’s multi-sensory, 360-degree panorama of the Hellenistic royal capital is your ticket to the the western coast of modern Turkey some 1900 years ago. Re-opened in November 2018 following a previous run at the museum in 2011 and 2012, the 30-metre-high computer-generated painting whisks you out of modern-day Berlin and into the city of Pergamon, as it was in AD129. Developed by Vienna born Yadegar Asisi, a Berliner since 1979 who also created the Berlin Wall panorama at Checkpoint Charlie, the project combines archaeological research with photography and digital technology to remodel “3D space within a 2D image”, for you to “experience” history. As you ascend the five-floor viewing platform, you can gaze out at the Pergamon Altar and the debauched festivities of Dionysus all presented in striking detail. From picture-perfect lovers swooning on the grass to animals slaughtered in sacrificial rituals, Asisi’s knack for visual storytelling is on full display here. Light design enhances the sense of palpable immersion, as the lighting shifts every few minutes from moonlight to the pink glow of dawn and the warmth of midday. A soundtrack of choral singing, flutes and harps is a little cheesy, but the chirping of cicadas at night, the bleating of sheep at sunrise and cries of children feel almost eerily authentic. It would all seem pretty cosy and idyllic out there, if it weren’t for the slave market lurking in the corner of a scene beyond the Altar. Not everything was better in the olden days!

PERGAMON. Masterpieces from the Ancient Metropolis with a 360° Panorama by Yadegar Asisi Pergamon Museum, Mitte