Paul Spies



I’ve lived in Berlin for about a year now and I feel right at home. This may surprise some of my friends, because I’ve have lived in Amsterdam my entire life. But there is something about Berlin, although it is hard to explain exactly what that ‘something’ is. It’s not even a particularly beautiful city; there’s no coherent old city centre and the scars of the Second World War and the Cold War still dominate the streetscape. The new buildings in the metropolis (although you’re not allowed to use that word here because the four million Berlin inhabitants consider their city to be a collection of merged villages) were built very badly and are already ripe for demolition. The unbridled freedom that was prevalent after the fall of the Wall has mostly disappeared; international property developers are driving out the pioneers from the 1990s.

And yet, there’s something about the place. Maybe the explanation is entirely metaphysical; this city, which at one point was unimaginably important, has been scarred by the harsh history of the twentieth century. Apart from its destruction in the days following the Second Word War, it has weathered major bloodlettings twice: the loss of the Jewish population in the 1930s and 1940s, and the disappearance of industry during the Cold War. On top of that came the destructive effect of the division between East and West and the crippling debt of bankrupt East Berlin after the fall of the Wall. But the city is recovering like a coiled spring that has been let go. It’s like the pressure is making the city jump extra high.

It started with the international creative class, which flocked to the city because of the amount of affordable space in the vacant strip where the Wall once stood. Where creatives go, big companies tend to follow in order to hitch a ride on the wave of innovation that this unorganized scene brings with it. A second important factor was the return of the government and parliament to Berlin. After the reunification, the Germans decided by the smallest of majorities that Berlin should be the seat of government once again. With the arrival of the government and businesses in Berlin, a lot of money arrived as well, which enabled the city to fund big projects.

I’m closely involved with one of these projects: the Humboldt Forum. Apart from being the director of the Stadtmuseum Berlin Foundation, I’m also the chief curator of a big exhibition called ‘Berlin and the World’, which will open in the Humboldt Forum in 2019.The Humboldt Forum will be located in the colossal baroque City Palace on the museum island, which is currently being rebuilt. The Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art will be housed on the top two floors whilst on the first floor there will be a presentation showing that Berlin has always been a very international city, where population growth, especially in the nineteenth century, was not due to birth rates but to migration. For this purpose we have 4,500 square metres at our disposal. We don’t want it to be a traditional museum but an eye-opener that makes people able to ‘read’ the city, its violent history and its exceptional versatility.

I will always be an inveterate citizen of Amsterdam, but here I have landed in the capital of twentieth century history. After all these months, I am still looking around with amazement and fascination, because every stone here tells a story. Experience it for yourself!


Paul Spies
Stadtmuseum Berlin Director


This production was published in WOTH No3. This issue is still available in english via Bruil & van der StaaijOr get a subscription here!

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