We were looking to organise the itinerary for our undergraduate trip to Berlin. We had 120 students in attendance and needed to find a series of interesting cultural options for them to engage in. During the search for alternative destinations, it was Tash that first discovered Buchstabenmuseum (Museum of Letters). Having sent me a link to a blog that reviewed the museum, it was obvious that this was a must see destination, in fact it looked so good, it seemed completely worth devising the entire trip around a visit. You can imagine my disappointment when visiting the website (www.bushstabenmuseum.de) to find that they opened from Thursday afternoon to Sunday, our trip being booked from Monday to Thursday morning. Fortunately, after contacting them and suggesting we had at least 50 students that would be very interested in visiting (and paying 3.50 euros, which is a steal) they very kindly agreed to open for us, in two groups, on Wednesday afternoon.
As we walked through the snow and black ice that covered the pavements of Alexanderstasse and Holzmarktstrasse looking for markers that I had apparently memorised from the website, we eventually found the right street but took a wrong turn into a shopping precinct, where we asked a very sweet old lady that clearly wanted to help us, but had not the faintest idea where we were talking about (although it turned out to be just round the corner). My German is very poor, her English was very poor, but we understood each other somehow. As I lead my band of merry followers further in the wrong direction I eventually realised the error of my ways and headed back in the direction we had come from, only to bump into the same old lady coming out of the supermarket looking in both directions, clearly looking for someone, which turned out to be me. She had asked in the supermarket for directions to the museum, and was able, rather slowly given the icy conditions, to take us to the front of the exhibition space, which was enormously brilliant of her. On the front doors we found a note from the group that had arrived for the first tour instructing us to ring them when we arrived, which we duly did, and then waited for 20 minutes in the freezing cold for their tour to finish as there was nobody other than the tour guide to open up and let us in. This only heightened my sense of anticipation, particularly as messages that were being sent to us from within the museum all suggested that it was completely terrific, and well worth waiting for.
One of my first significant forays into working with type was generating a series of paintings based on photographs I had been taking, and continue to take, of three-dimensional signage. It is becoming rarer to find as businesses look to minimise cost and technology is able to drive cheaper means of production in the world of signage. It is easier and cheaper to produce back-lite, vinyl letterforms on perspex than it is to build, craft, hang and light 3-D letters, particularly of company logos and branding. From these photographs I would project the images onto prepared canvases and construct 2-dimensional, multi-layered images that cut across the canvas at diverse and contrasting angles, creating the illusion of depth. It has been an ambition of mine for many years to visit the Neon Graveyard in Las Vegas, so that I might photograph the letterforms for this purpose, and here was a chance to do exactly the same the thing. As it was, which is somewhat embarrassing and frustrating in equal measure, the battery on my camera ran out half way through our tour!
As the first group began to filter out of the museum, Ellie, the tremendous tour guide, began the somewhat difficult task of selling merchandise and answering questions from our first group, whilst trying to let us in from the cold, which created a bottleneck of excitement in the small foyer as students and staff from both groups traded comments on what they had seen inside with how cold it had been whilst waiting outside (it actually turned out to be not much warmer inside!).
As the first group cleared out, we waited a little while in the first part of the exhibition space, which gave us a tantalising view of what was to come. There were individual letters mounted on smooth white blocks, some neon, others simply proudly presented, all with small details of text as to the provenance of the letter, which all looked very well considered. To one side of these exhibits, but in a prominent space, demanding most of our attention, was a large , nearly four metres across, white scripted neon sign mounted on a black background stating ‘Schuhe’, which was very beautiful to see, and clearly set a very strong tone as to the quality of pieces we were going to see.
As you drifted into this initial space, the signs were mesmerising, at least to me, and I did not originally see a set of open double doors to the right of the entrance. Being inquisitive, or nosy, I decided to take a sneaky peek inside and was treated to one of the most surprising and excellent views of the entire trip. Through the doors, to the left and right, was row upon row of stacked up three-dimensional signage, leaning against long, high corridor walls on both sides, the letters differing in scale, colour, age, state of repair, and typeface. A splendid vision for a signage junkie, and an image I will carry with me for some time.
Amongst some significant and historic Berlin signage, such as a piece of the original Alexanderplatz station, and an example of the famous logo, in neon, of the Berliner newspaper, amongst others, the piece of work that grabbed me the most, and everyone else I think, was an exploded example of how a neon letterform is composed. In a space that was once used for cold storage, a small 4X3 metre white tiled room was hung 6/7 stages of how a letterform is built. The impact in the darkened windowless environment was significant. Each aspect, starting from back to front, told the story of each section within the composition, hung from the roof, all at the same level with perhaps 10 inches between each section, forming a practical and exceptionally beautiful installation.
As we moved through the exhibition, our guide Ellie provided a very good commentary and background not only to the signs that we were seeing and their provenance, but also an insight into how they were reclaimed and brought to the museum.
After completing our tour of the official space, we taken into the (freezing cold) storage area, which is no more than a large corrugated side building, and formed part of the amazed vision I had seen through the doors as we had waited at the entrance. What I had seen was effectively a mezzanine, which housed the neatly arranged mismatched signage, however down a short flight of stairs lay all the donated and collected signs that had not yet found a home within the museum itself. For me, this was the most exciting part of the place, the environment created was that of old signs and individual letters lay on top of each other, creating tremendous shapes generated by the disparate collection of typefaces, casting brilliant shadows, little vignettes of clashing colours, a general smorgasbord to feast the eyes of anyone interested in letterforms.
As we made our way back to the entrance, some of us returning to take more photographs of particularly favourite signs, we congregated in the small foyer to pay our entrance fee, buy some keyrings and postcards and ask any questions that weren’t covered in the extensive tour, expressed our thanks and wandered out onto the now dark and even colder Holzmarktstrasse, and I was left wondering how, and when, I would see something so completely bewitching again. Next years student trip might need to be in Las Vegas.