Mahnmal St. Nikolai in Hamburg, Germany, is a memorial museum built over (and under) the rests of St. Nikolai’s Church, which was destroyed during the WWII. It is divided in three different parts: the shattered church, a museum and an observatory at the top of the tower of the old church.
The shattered church is kept destroyed, as others in Germany, as a memorial of what happened during the war. As an innovative element, they have some sculptures made by different artists, all related to the main theme of this institution: how terrible and destroyable a war is, and to always remember that.
The observatory is just that, an observatory with great views over the city. Visitors can use the elevator and can buy the ticket at the bottom of the tower, not only at the entrance of the museum. Unfortunately, up in the observatory there is no recommendation to visit the museum or information of what you may find there, nothing to tempt the visitors to go inside the museum.
The Museum is what I want to talk about. After 7 or 8 years, I have recently visited it again and I am gladly surprised with the changes. On September 2013 it was reopened, after a mayor change and a better usage of the space, which has doubled (from 300 m2 to 600 m2). It is situated down the church, and has kept part of the old stone and brick structure as the layout walls of the exhibition.
The space is divided in four thematic areas, although it is more like one big space with just a couple of walls in the middle. During the tour, the change from one theme to the other is natural and not noticeable, as all the explanations flow though the themes in chronological order. You can see in every main area information panels, as well as detailed exhibit labels and other exhibition elements with written information containing examples and documents, all well presented and inviting to open or discover. Other elements are videos, in different and attractive formats, personalized sound explanations, pictures and historical exhibits. At the beginning there is also a timeline since the construction of the first church until its destruction. Everything, except some audios, is in German and English, something that should be obvious but unfortunately is unusual in Hamburg’s museums.
Up to this point, we have a Museum that made profit of the renovations, installing modern exhibition elements without an excessive ambition, trying to be a little interactive, and that developed successfully the contents of the permanent exhibition according to the new and bigger space.
What makes this space an excellent museographical example is all what it managed to put together in only 600 m2, with harmony and good taste, leaving enough free space not to make the visitors feeling trapped in a cellar with a huge amount of elements and information.
The temporary exhibition is presented in the middle of the first part of the permanent exhibition, which presents the history of the church. Right after your first two steps into the exhibition space, you can find this small temporary exhibition of French illustrators that made a sad comic based on the WWII, which is completely available for its reading in hanging fabric panels. It is interesting to find this comic next to the information about the history of the church, making the first connection between the place where you are and the main theme – the war. What is also interesting is that this comic exhibition lets this small museum to be a part of a bigger project that shows the work of French illustrators that is touring through different exhibition halls in different German cities.
Almost in the middle of the tour, you find another international cooperation: the exhibition of a permanent loan made by the Historical Museum of Warsaw. This cooperation intends to show a parallel between what happened in Hamburg and in Warsaw in the same war, both being some of the cities that suffered major destruction. This small and simple cooperation gives the whole exhibition, focused in the Hamburger experience, a wider scope and makes more complete the impression the visitors are receiving.
Without disturbing the visitors, after the middle of the exhibition hall there is a space with chairs distributed before a screen, ready for conferences and projections, as well as a piano next. After asking for more information, it turns out that you may regularly participate in an interesting and varied program of activities organized around the exhibition, and that take place right in the middle of it. Activities include conferences, films and live performances of classic music. These activities are offered out the opening hours, in order not to disturb the visitors.
I am completely amazed of how in such a small space you can find an excellent set up of the permanent and temporary exhibitions, two international cooperations, a conference hall and space for music and cinema. Having in mind that the theme of the museum is very delicate and needs to be situated in an intimate space that lets people´s emotions to arise, I can’t think of a better way of doing it, of reaching all the goals at the same time.
Mahnmal St. Nikolai, Willy-Brandt-Str. 60, Hamburg.