Museum Fünf Kontinente

Alone with the voodoo masks

The Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) is a fascinating place to explore the history of our world. During the day, visitors meander through thousands of items in one of Germany’s largest and most important collections of ethnographic artefacts. But what exactly goes inside the museum once the doors have closed, the halls are plunged into darkness and the final visitors have headed home?

I’m not one of those people who scares easily; I don’t believe in the undead or spirits and I’m not afraid of the dark. If I’m honest, I’m more afraid of getting bored than I am of getting haunted by some paranormal phenomenon. Or, so I thought... When the final visitors leave Museum Fünf Kontinente on Maximilianstrasse at around 6 p.m., I am ready and waiting at the entrance. The plan is for me to spend a night in the museum, surrounded by the centuries-old masks, Polynesian carvings and African ancestor figures.

It makes me think of that Ben Stiller film; I found the film funny as opposed to scary so I’m not too worried about my very own “Night at the Museum”.

It makes me think of that Ben Stiller film where an entire museum comes to life overnight; I found the film funny as opposed to scary so I’m not too worried about my very own “Night at the Museum”. The first thing I do is meet the man who is joining me tonight (after all, I’m not really allowed to stay in this huge building all by myself): Waldemar Werner is a tall, serene man with friendly eyes. You can tell straight away that it would take a lot to ruffle his feathers.

He has been the night watchman at the Museum Fünf Kontinente since 2010 and has yet to encounter any paranormal activity on his shift, which runs from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Or, so he says. “I mean, when a motion sensor goes off in an empty room, then that does feel pretty strange,” says Werner. “It normally turns out to be just a draft or a fly.” I’m confident that Mr Werner is telling me the truth. While I’m here, he will be staying at the front desk while I explore the upper storeys.

Museum Fünf Kontinente on Maximilianstrasse used to be known as the “Staatliche Museum für Völkerkunde” (State Museum for Ethnology). It was founded in 1862 when it became Germany’s first ethnological museum. Some 160,000 artefacts from around the world are housed in this magnificent two-storey building – the main front façade alone is almost 150 metres long, consisting of five blocks with arcades that run from end to end. The museum’s interior is divided into various themed areas: Oceania, Africa, North America, Myanmar and a few more.

I decide to start my night in Oceania. “Have fun,” says Mr Steinle, the museum’s press officer who helped me to arrange my visit. He then heads off, closing the doors behind me.

I take a look around: The rooms in the Oceania area are painted red and are nice and warm. The walls are hung with wooden masks and I spot a few figures sticking their tongues out at me. In one of the corners I spy a small warrior equipped with a strange suit of armour. It’s pitch black apart from the dim glow of the emergency lighting. It’s kind of like being on a historic ghost train. I walk carefully around the display cases. The first thing on my to-do list is to get my bearings. Each time I take a step, the floor creaks beneath my feet, sounding as if the boards are about to break at any moment. The rooms are so silent that even the tiniest noise sounds incredibly loud. I hear a moisture sensor ticking somewhere and it sounds like a time bomb about to go off.

Unluckily for me, I’ve forgotten my torch. The torch function on my mobile provides only a limited amount of light. On my first tour around the museum, I swipe frantically in the wrong direction on the screen and realise for the first time that I’m actually pretty nervous. After all, not only am I in a strange environment but the silhouettes of some of the exhibits look quite human-like in the dark – and that puts me on edge. Take, for example, the mask from Papua New Guinea with eyes, a nose, stylised tusks on the mouth and feathers sticking out of its head. The mask is really interesting to look at and yet when I turn my back on it, I’m automatically overcome by the feeling of being watched.

I loop my way through the rooms, passing ancient fishing nets and a war canoe with the head of a crocodile on its nose. I start to wonder what the drum roll sounded like as the warriors set sail into the Pacific with this crocodile. I’m almost certain that this crocodile head has seen a huge amount of bloodshed. I turn to my right and head towards a black display case. Click. Clack. All of a sudden, the lights turn on. I freeze in fright. How long will it take the night watchman Mr Werner to make it from the front desk up to the first floor if I scream loud enough?

It takes me a few seconds to realise that everything is fine; luckily it was just a motion sensor. I take a moment to calm down. The display case is now all lit up and inside it I see some kind of shrunken head. The placard tells me that this is not just any normal shrunken head; it is in fact a painted ancestor skull with shells in its eye sockets. I start to feel a little queasy again. All of these artefacts have a history; each one of them tells an individual life story or even the story of an entire people. Could all these items have a soul? And if they do, do they come to life at night and wander restlessly through the museum?

I keep hearing creaks or doors rattling in their frames and each sound I hear gives me a start. And I still have the feeling that I’m being watched. There’s the small warrior in the corner, for example, whose eyes seem to follow me with every step I take. I decide to go right up to him, just to make sure it is in fact a model inside the armour. The closer I get, the more fascinated I become by the precision of the small man’s armour. It comes from Banaba Island in the Gilbert Islands and is almost 150 years old. I read the sign: The body armour is made from twine created from coconut fibres interwoven with women’s hair while the helmet is made from the dried skin of a porcupine fish. Sadly I don’t have any phone signal otherwise I could Google where Banaba Island is.

I do actually start to think that I can see the warrior moving. I know I’m being stupid but fear is rarely rational and it’s quick to take hold.

I imagine how weird it would be if the little warrior were to suddenly start moving. The problem with thinking this is that I do actually start to think that I can see the warrior moving. I know I’m being stupid but fear is rarely rational and it’s quick to take hold. After two hours in Oceania, I know most of the exhibits inside out. I know where I need to stand and how many steps I need to take towards the case with the skull for the motion sensor to go off. By my tenth go, I’m even starting to enjoy myself a bit. I start to get a little overconfident and decide to go one door further into Myanmar. Not one of my best ideas.

Myanmar is dominated by a huge golden Buddha, in front of which two metre-tall red statues stand guard. The guards’ faces appear as if they are in pain just looking at me. In the dark, they serve their purpose straight away; I waste no time in turning back towards the door. Things are starting to get a little weird for me.

I’m gradually getting tired. I head towards to the Oriental area as I have heard it has a little sofa snug, where the museum sometimes screens films during the day. The floor of the sofa area is covered in children’s books, which make me feel at home right away. As far as I can tell in the dim emergency lighting, the walls in the Orient are painted in a lovely shade of turquoise, which helps me to feel at ease. The reading corner will be my safe place for the rest of the night.

When the night watchman comes to collect me a few hours later, I have drifted into a restless semi-slumber. The small Polynesian warrior is still standing in the corner and the mask with the tusks is still hanging in place. Maybe I should come back here during the day some time to make sure it’s still there.

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Text: Heike Kottmann; Photos: Frank Stolle