A peek inside the world’s largest museum for science and technology
Those who have never been to the Deutsches Museum may not know what it’s a museum of. Indeed, the name of this Munich institution is rather misleading, evoking images of cuckoo clocks and Lederhosen. Or, perhaps, given its austere, monumental exterior, a historical or military museum? But no, step inside, pay your fee, take a map and prepare yourself for a truly inspiring and informative journey through the world of science and technology, because that’s what this museum is about.
If you are unsure about where to begin your explorations—after all, you won’t manage to see all the 46,000 square meters and the more than 40 different departments in one afternoon—then perhaps the Zeiss planetarium, and the sundial gardens hidden away on the sixth floor, would make a good starting point. The planetarium, which was the first ever projection planetarium (built in 1925) admits visitors about every two hours for a 30-minute show (this is the only attraction that costs extra, so be sure to get a ticket at the main entrance). Here, you will be taken on a tour of the night sky as seen over a period of one year. Although the commentary is in German and the planetarium next door at the Forum der Technik is undoubtedly more impressive, there is an undeniable charm to this old-fashioned no-frills view of the firmament and on a rainy weekday afternoon you may well have the place to yourself.
Once your eyes have become accustomed to the light again you can take a look at the daytime sky by going out to the sundial gardens, which surround the planetarium dome. On a clear day this affords a wonderful panoramic view of Munich and (on a very clear day) the Alps, as well as the chance to study the more than 20 sundials on display.
If you wish to take a close-up view of the sun, a large cross-section model of it can be found one floor below in the astronomy II department. Here, visitors can apply themselves to one of the computer quizzes on offer or, if that requires too much mental energy, go and stand on the scales that tell a person how much they would weigh on the moon (recommended for absolutely anyone who worries about their weight).
Don’t leave this part of the building without visiting the museum’s very own amateur radio station. The call sign is DL Ø DM and there are daily demonstrations, but if you miss these, the exhibits and film provide a good overview of the various aspects of amateur radio.
If your desire to understand astronomy has not yet been exhausted, you can take a look at a collection of historic astronomic equipment on the fourth floor. Unfortunately, here as in other parts of the museum, explanatory texts in English are distributed haphazardly throughout exhibition rooms, making it difficult for non-German speakers to get a clear overview of the exhibits. There is, however, one feature in this department that you will not wish to miss: a film made by the company of the American design team Charles and Ray Eames. In this five-minute video, the viewer is taken on a fast trip through the universe. The starting point is the hand of a man lying on a picnic blanket in California. Moving at a dizzying speed, the camera zooms off into space past the sun and out of our solar system. The commentator remarks on passing planets in the manner of a city guide, pointing out historic sites and soon we are passing other galaxies millions of light years away. Having arrived at what the film calls “the frontiers of the universe” the camera goes into reverse and before we know what’s happening we are back at the picnic.
Diversification sets in on the third floor: computers, micro electronics, agriculture and foodstuffs technology are just some of the departments to be visited. Computer enthusiasts will probably want to look at the Z3, a copy of the world’s first fully operational computer, built by the German Konrad Zuse in 1941. This complicated, clumsy-looking instrument is, in fact, in working order and is part of a demonstration (there are more than 20 free demonstrations, films and lectures on offer daily in different parts of the museum) on the historical development of computers given in the department starting at 3 pm (regrettably only in German). Visitors with bored kids could bypass computers altogether and walk straight through to the mathematical cabinet. This is the touchy-feely math solving corner: how to cut a solid into three parts of equal volume, how to make a braid or where to use square wheels are just some of the questions that are answered here.
Feeling exhausted by all the mental effort, you may like to take the stairs to the coffee shop above. Of the four eateries in the museum, this is easily the most inviting. You can sit and sip a cappuccino and enjoy a lovely view over the rooftops of Munich.
Though the agriculture and foodstuffs technology section seems a bit dusty and forlorn, there is plenty here to inform and entertain. Follow the complicated diagram showing how sugar is refined and you may never want to look at a sugary snack again. Look at the very realistic models of bread to see how little this basic foodstuff has changed over the centuries. Or walk around the perfectly executed miniature model of a bottling factory. If you’ve never made it to the Alps, stop for a moment and admire the original alpine chalet that was dismantled and reconstructed here.
The visitor seeking a little calm and quiet will find no better place than the chronometry section. From the crude to the exquisite, clocks from every age are on view, reminding us of a time when the tick and chime of these mechanical timekeepers were part of the rhythm of everyday life. Next door, young visitors can search out the knobs and buttons of weighing machines and scales or discover that the unit of measurement known as a yard was in fact the distance between the nose and finger tips of King Henry I of England.
Down a flight of stairs to the second floor you will discover the Altamira Cave. This is a faithful copy of the interior of a cave in northern Spain in which paintings of animals dating back 14,000 years were discovered. Settle back on a bench in the half-light, calmed by the gentle sound of water dripping on stone, and observe these delicate drawings. A depiction of a bison almost directly above your head combines both abstract and realistic features in a way that puts many modern painters to shame.
Right next door is another highlight of the museum: a glassblower in action. As most of the glassblowers working here have at least a smattering of English and are happy to chat, foreign visitors can find out every detail of the art of glassblowing while watching the molten glass being shaped over and over until the final form has been achieved. Other types of glass, such as industrially produced beer and wine bottles, the glass discs used in traffic lights and ancient glass beads, are displayed a little further on, past the ceramics department.
Those interested in paper-making will enjoy the nearby paper department, where one can find out when and where this ubiquitous material was invented. Four miniature models of a papermaking workshop in 18th century France give us an idea of how complicated the procedure was before it became industrialized (the attention to detail in these models is such that we can even see the apprentice’s hat and coat hanging by the door). As is typical of the unspectacular style of the museum, one of the most interesting items in this section is hidden away in a corner behind a blue velvet curtain. Here you can see an enormous Chinese banknote from around 1300 printed on paper made from the mulberry tree. Visitors who prefer the tactile approach can take a seat at the hexagonal craft table near the exit and try a little origami.
The history of printing may not grab the foot-weary museumgoer, but he or she might take a moment to observe the life-size model of a monk laboriously copying out a text by hand in his scriptorium and consider how revolutionary the invention of the printing press was in its day.
You can fast-forward through the history of technology by visiting the astronautics displays, which are in the next room. While the subject matter may be exciting, this is a field that, like astronomy, is hard to bring to life. The dozens of American, Russian and European model rockets lined up in front of a dark blue wall are unimpressive. It is better to go to the small space behind and watch the film of a shuttle launch at Edward’s Airbase. The (English) commentary is live and the visitor has a very palpable sense of the seriousness and danger of space travel. There is also a fascinating display of the minutiae of life in a rocket, such as the food, which looks far from appetizing.
One floor down, in the aeronautics display, the visitor can see how science and art have often been brought together to further technology. Although it was a long way from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of a bird’s wing to the first aircraft, both are artistic creations that seem to have more in common with one another than with the modern airplane. It is hard to believe that the Messerschmitt M17, made of wood and canvas, ever got up into the air.
Much of the first floor is given over to physics and chemistry and, sadly, non-scientists may find themselves frustrated by the unimaginative displays, not to mention the lack of information in English. The cool green and blue decor in the chemistry section does little to encourage the museum visitor to tarry. Attention to detail is required here if you wish to understand atoms and radioactivity, for example.
Tucked off to the right of the chemistry section are the musical instruments. Here you can take a walk through a historical panorama of pianos, cembalos and wind instruments, to name but a few. Those who wish to see the instruments in action should look out for the program of concerts in the music hall (Musik Saal). If you don’t have the time or inclination to attend a live concert, visit the small sound-proof room at the back of this department and listen to a concert in a location of your choice—the opera house in Frankfurt or the Staatsoper in Vienna are two of those on offer—without leaving your seat.
Bridge-building may not sound like an attractive proposition but a walk along the specially constructed steel and glass bridge on the ground floor serves to remind us just how much we rely on such constructions in everyday life: try getting to the city center from the museum without crossing a bridge! Or if you fancy yourself as a budding construction engineer, try putting together three sets of wooden blocks that make up three types of bridge. These should keep you occupied for quite some time.
If you have now reached screaming point and are suffering from museum overload, a quick visit to the room of simulated cycling and driving may revive your spirits. This unnamed room between tunnel construction and machine components features three types of vehicles: a bike, a BMW roadster and a fork-lift truck, which seems to spring into action at the drop of a coin. Landlubbers should take a stroll around the marine navigation exhibits a few rooms away. If you prefer to admire the beauty of old sailboats, or more modern marine vessels for that matter, with your feet planted firmly on the ground, this section is for you.
While there is plenty more to see on the ground floor, this high-speed tour of the museum would not be complete without a visit to the coal and salt mines that are situated beyond the cloakroom. Of all the museum’s attractions this is certainly the most impressive and, although the guide speaks only Bavarian, it is worth joining a tour so that you can see some of the machinery in action and because alone it can be a little scary! By some trick of well placed steps the nervous visitor seems to trek a long way into the bowels of the earth before coming across the first exhibit. Well, actually, you may have passed a small chapel along the way, in which prayers used to be said for the miners, but that won’t have made you feel any better.
Accompanied by the jovial guide, you make your way along miles of very real-looking, claustrophobic tunnels (they are actually plaster stones from the 1920s). The noise, dirt and danger of the mining industry could hardly be brought home more clearly. Life-size models of miners lie in tiny coal shafts, so hot, cold or damp that it will make you shudder. And that’s without the noise of the machines: seven hours of continuous roaring and thundering that makes conversation nearly impossible. You will no doubt pity the poor pit horses locked away underground for weeks on end, when you look into a cheerless underground stable. Visitors breathe a sigh of relief when, after 60 minutes of wanderings underground, they are finally back out in the open.
Remember, this is just a short tour. The library, the open-air exhibits and the airfield at Schleissheim are all also worth a visit, as are countless unmentioned departments in the museum itself. With so much to see and do at the Deutsches Museum you may well want to spread your visits over a few weeks or just take short trips to look at things that interest you. There can hardly be a more enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
A short history of the Deutsches Museum:
In 1156, Henry the Lion, one of the first Dukes of Bavaria, built a bridge across the Isar River traversing a low sandbank, and thus founded the city of Munich. Over the centuries this sandbank was used as a coal depot, docking stage for rafts and a barracks. In 1903, the well-known local engineer Oskar von Miller, inspired by the South Kensington Museum (later called the Science Museum) in London and the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris, decided to organize the building of Munich’s very own science museum and the City of Munich offered the island on which it stands today as a potential site.
Although it took von Miller 22 years to bring his plans for the museum to fruition, a temporary home for exhibits was found in the old National Museum on Maximilianstrasse and a reputation for excellence was established long before the official inauguration of the new building was held on Oskar von Miller’s seventieth birthday, on May 7, 1925.
At that time the museum was open for 70 hours a week, and, as well as looking at exhibits, visitors were encouraged to carry out their own experiments and make use of the library. Despite being badly damaged during World War II, the building was back in use by the 1950s, being altered in the interim years only on the interior to accommodate advances in technology.
© MF Sharp/Feb 02