Buchstabenmuseum, Berlin’s Museum of Letters
by Guest Blogger
Anyone remember Lefty the Salesman, who used to try and sell poor old Ernie letters of the alphabet on Sesame Street? (“Psst! Would you like to buy an O?”) Stepping in to Berlin’s Buchstabenmuseum (Museum of Letters), where you are immediately surrounded by hundreds of letters ranging from a few centimetres short to close to three metres high, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into Lefty’s depot. Except these letters aren’t for sale.
Founded as a charitable organisation in 2005 by Barbara Dechant and Anja Schulze, whose love for typography dates back to their childhoods, what started out as a private collection was opened to the public in 2008. Since then it has become a favourite with letterform lovers from around the world, who truly must feel like a kid in a candy shop. The museum has around 200 exhibits in its collection, though if you counted the individual letters of the words and signs, there would be many more.
Half of the museum is set in semi-darkness, to let the collection of neon lit letters reach their full potential, but visitors receive a small torch at the entrance to help them read the exhibit labels. Other letters are grouped by colour, so there are, for example, yellow and green, blue and white, and red rooms. Many of the letters are intentionally displayed out of context, to keep the focus on the typographical form rather than the original words or names. So far, all the collected letters are from the Roman alphabet and the majority come from Berlin and the surrounding areas, though there are also acquisitions from further afield in Germany as well as elsewhere in Europe, e.g. Vienna and Paris. The curators hope to add letters from further locations and indeed other alphabets to the collection in the future.
Although the exhibition space in Mitte bills itself as a showroom, the museum aims to not only collect and exhibit letters, characters and words from around the world, but also to document, research, preserve and restore them. Each exhibit comes with a note of its production (if known) and acquisition dates, font type, original location, size and material. Many of the fonts are custom made, which is not surprising considering the majority come from traditional family businesses, which developed their own trademark signage. Other sources include building, cinema, exhibition and factory signage as well as letters used on film sets or for events.
One particularly special exhibit is the “Zierfische” (ornamental fish) signage, which adorned an aquarium store in Berlin Friedrichshain in the 1980s and 90s. The lettering was designed by graphic artist Manfred Gensicke from his own handwriting, and the museum has not only the salvaged sign alongside neon fish in its collection – acquired after thwarting an attempt to steal them from the former store – but also Gensicke’s original sketches. “Zierfische” has since even been developed in to an actual font.
The founders’ goal is to set up a museum with a permanent exhibition covering the history and evolution of letters and writing, alongside a programme of temporary exhibitions on challenging and experimental topics. The need to find the perfect space has become more urgent than anticipated: last month the museum announced they would have to vacate their current premises at the end of March, as the old GDR shopping mall they’re located in is being renovated. It would be devastating to see the end of this little gem of a museum, but the search is on for a new home so hopefully it will be “Auf Wiedersehen” and not “Good Bye”. If anyone knows of a good location in Berlin (minimum requirement is at least 300 m2 with high ceilings, with daylight and central heating optional), you can get in touch with the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit them in their current location in the Berlin Carré on Karl Leibknecht Straße until 30th March. They are open Thursdays – Saturdays from 1pm-3pm and admission is a mere €2.50.
I most certainly wish the Buchstabenmuseum well in their endeavours, both to find the perfect space and secure their future, as well as in adding the one missing letter to their collection from A to Z – the elusive letter J!