1.5 million visitors view over 25,000 exhibits at the Deutsches Museum every year. And almost every one of them is fascinated by something else. Our author tells us about her favourite exhibition: the mine.
On a Tuesday in Munich, I descend down into the depths of the underworld. The good news: I am not alone. The bad news I suddenly feel old. It's 25 years since I visited this place, where some of my best childhood memories were formed.
The underworld is a 400 metre long circular route underneath the Deutsches Museums, descending three stories down. Via steps and slopes, we reach a realistic depiction of a genuine mine. Or rather: visual aids explaining the mining techniques used to extract ore, coal – and salt. The whole thing is virtually a museum within the museum. There's a real illusion as you enter, because the original exhibits are not just in display cases, they are designed as their own small themed world. It is exactly this that captivated me as a child and I wonder whether, 25 years later, it will hold the same great fascination for me.
But what particularly mesmerised me as a child at this museum were not the ships, aeroplanes or the high-voltage system that generates lightening (though I must admit these were all part of it). What put me in a mix of excitement and horror was always the mine.
The Deutsches Museum in Munich: You don't have to be a nerd to love this museum. It is the biggest museum of science and technology in the world. It opened in 1925. Since then, millions of visitors from all over the world have marvelled at the sailing ship in the entrance area and the aeroplanes in the upper levels; each year, 1.5 million people stare in amazement at the high-voltage system or view the so-called Otto-Hahn table – the original device used by three German scientists in the 1930s to show that they had split the atom for the first time. The museum's stated aim: to demonstrate natural science and technical knowledge to interested laypeople. I would put it differently: the Deutsches Museum shows you how the world works. But what particularly mesmerised me as a child at this museum were not the ships, aeroplanes or the high-voltage system that generates lightening (though I must admit these were all part of it). What put me in a mix of excitement and horror was always the mine.
As a child, it felt like a journey into a different world, so authentic were the stone walls, the mine cars and the rails that lead through the narrow passageways. The 400 metre circular route felt like an unending dungeon to me, where you could get lost forever. And even though I have slightly more realistic ideas about the extent of the danger facing me as I descend below ground, to be honest I am pleased not to be exploring the route alone.
The dim light, the narrow passageways, even the muffled acoustics: I truly experience history with all my senses here – and unlike when I was younger, I can appreciate that it's a part of history.
Andreas Ravens is with me. He knows the mine better than anyone else at the museum; Ravens has been responsible for this exhibit for over ten years – along with the shipping exhibits. Outside, it's high summer in Munich with temperatures topping 35 degrees in the shade; in the mine, however, it's dark and cold. "It's cooler beneath the earth than outside," I say, until Andreas Ravens immediately reminds me that in actual fact it's quite the opposite – that the deeper you penetrate beneath the earth the hotter it gets. Another reminder of my childhood: physics was unfortunately never my thing. A few original miner's lamps shimmer golden yellow, in the first corner is a figure with a hammer and chisel. I am momentarily afraid – just as I was as an eight-year-old. As a child, I truly believed I was in a real mine.
Today, I notice: the exhibits may have got older, as have I, but they have lost nothing of their appeal. However today, I feel less like I am among fantasy figures in Disneyland; instead, I discover an extremely realistic perspective in these exhibits: they reveal the great economic importance of coal and ore extraction from the 16th century through to the present day – and the extreme conditions the miners worked in. Andreas Ravens shows me ladders that the workers used to climb into the tunnels – down to a depth of 400 metres. "It would often take more than an hour to get down there," says Ravens. "This was followed by a ten-hour working day." I consider my 15-minute morning commute by car – and am astounded. I am equally astounded by how quickly an industry that was once key to life, as coal mining was, can disappear into insignificance: coal mining stopped completely in Germany in 2018. But the mine at the Deutsches Museum will be maintained – as a piece of German history.
Just like when I was a child, it's not far into our route before I become completely immersed in this scarily beautiful world of mining turned art. The dim light, the narrow passageways, even the muffled acoustics: I truly experience history with all my senses here – and unlike when I was younger, I can appreciate that it's a part of history. When we reach the wooden slide, which as a child I would whiz down hooting as it took me from one level to another, I get nostalgic. The slide closed years ago because it no longer meets the museum's safety standards.
But despite this, when it comes to children's enthusiasm for this part of the Deutsches Museum, not much has changed: every few minutes, excited children sprint past us along the narrow passageways. One of the mine worker figures is wearing a back-to-front baseball cap. Andreas Ravens laughs. The children shriek with excitement. Do they realise, unlike me when I was young, that they are walking through 500 years of German economic history? Not really. But ultimately, it doesn't really matter. They too will go away memories of a foreign world which may well play no part in their future, but which has nevertheless considerably shaped it. The exhibition is just as vibrant as it was 25 years ago.