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Exilmuseum launches lab for participatory development

Torsten Landsberg
March 28, 2023

The museum in Berlin is intended to commemorate hundreds of thousands of often nameless people who fled Germany to escape the Nazis. Until its scheduled opening in 2026, a workshop invites visitors to help in its design.

Digital projection of the Berlin Exilmuseum: a modern, curvy building behind a historical gate
Danish architect Dorte Mandrup has designed the museum to stretch around the portal ruinsImage: Dorte Mandrup/MIR

It can sometimes take an agonizingly long time for an idea to reach its realization. In 2013, photographs by Stefan Moses appeared in the volume "Deutschlands Emigranten" (Germany's Emigrants) — portraits of people who had to leave Germany under National Socialism. Historian Christoph Stölzl, former director of the German Historical Museum, wrote the accompanying texts.

The unexpectedly large response to the volume resulted in the idea of founding a museum in Berlin to tell the stories and fates of German exiles. Soon after, Stölzl, who died last January, created the Exilmuseum Berlin foundation. Plans quickly took shape, thanks in part to notable donations. Former German president Joachim Gauck was soon convinced to become a patron, and was joined by Nobel Prize winner for literature Herta Müller.

Completion in 2026 at the earliest

The site at Anhalter Bahnhof, which had been abandoned for decades, was quickly decided upon as a suitable location, and in 2020 the foundation presented Dorte Mandrup, from Denmark, as the architect for constructing the museum. But as is often the case with building projects that need to be financed, time and patience is needed. The museum is currently set to open in 2026.

Until then, the foundation has opened the "Werkstatt Exilmuseum" (Exile Museum Workshop). Here, visitors can actively witness the creation of the museum and, ideally, also help develop it. 

In a room called "Laboratory," there are tables where tabletops correspond to the shapes of the later exhibition rooms. With colorful adhesive tape, floor plans can be designed and discarded, installations planned and redesigned. The next room, "Studio," features interviews with refugees from all ages of Germany's modern history.

Portraits on the wall of refugees past and present at the Werkstatt Exilmuseum in Berlin
Fleeing and exile: Portraits show refugees from then and nowImage: Stiftung Exilmuseum

Bringing past and present together

On the second floor of the old building, portraits of exiles hang on two walls facing each other.

Willy Brandt, who fled Germany for Norway in 1933 because of his political resistance to the Nazis, looks across the room at a young woman who recently fled to Germany from Afghanistan with her mother — partly because she was not allowed to go to school there.

The exile museum bridges the gap between then and now, with events from the past century reflecting the current situation, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as countless people fleeing their countries destroyed by conflict, or migrants' desperate attempts to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. 

From the ceiling hangs a flip-dot display — the type of mechanical display board often seen at train stations or airports with numbers flipping over to represent a day's schedule. The individual flip-dots rotate to continuously display new quotes from people who had to flee their homeland: "The body is now HERE" is one example. It is impossible to distinguish whether the statements are from 1933, or from 2023.

A man looks at images on the wall in the 'laboratory' of the Exilmuseum workshop.
The 'laboratory' of the Exilmuseum workshopImage: Stiftung Exilmuseum

About 20 people came to the workshop for the first guided tour of the day on the opening weekend late March.

With members of the press taking part in the workshop, participants were visibly more interested in discussing the concept of the upcoming museum than brainstorming on the subject of exile. Among the questions that were discussed were the museum's funding, and how it wouldn't overlap in terms of content with the  Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation, which opened across the street in June 2021.

Museum for WWII's displaced Germans

Historic site of expulsion

The workshop will be open every Thursday between 3 and 6 p.m. Numerous workshops are planned — include those with young people on the subject of dance, and an event series called "Exile in Film" in cooperation with the Deutsche Kinemathek. In addition, authors will discuss the topic of "Writing in Exile" at a series of readings.

Anhalter Bahnhof in the Kreuzberg district was one of Berlin's most important long-distance train stations during the Empire and the Weimar Republic. After the National Socialists gained strength, and in particular after Adolf Hitler seized power in the spring of 1933, many exiles left the city via Anhalter Bahnhof. From 1942, the station was used by Nazis to deport Jews to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The destroyed remains of the Anhalter Bahnhof entryway
Anhalter Bahnhof was a long-distance train station was damaged during World War II Image: Wolfram Kastl/picture alliance

After the demolition of the station in 1959, only the ruined gateway remained, which will be in front of the new museum building.

The land is owned by the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, which supports the project. The plan is to give the property to the museum foundation by hereditary building rights. The budget committee of the newly elected House of Representatives still has to give its approval. And finally, of course, the financing still has to be clarified.

Originally, the museum was to be financed entirely from private funds, but the construction costs, initially estimated at €30 million ($32.5 million), have since doubled, mainly due to the general increase in energy and raw material costs as a result of Russia's war in Ukraine. Some €20 million have been raised from private donations, but €40 million are still needed. The foundation is holding out hope for contributions from the public sector.


This article was originally written in German and adapted by John Silk.