COLAB, Buchstaben Museum Berlin

The Buchenstaben museum (Museum of Letters) opened in 2005 to exhibit its passion for typography. Located on Holzmarktstrasse in central Berlin, this museum surreptitiously forces the viewer to enter with no preconceived notion of what the museum is likely to display.

The contemporary privately owned museum is known for its work in preserving, restoring, and exhibiting signage from around Berlin from the earliest artifacts dating back to early 1940’s. It celebrates the unique typographic qualities of the signs displayed and also focuses on the industrial process of manufacturing the signs. The museum houses a plethora of signs in custom fonts in all forms and sizes that were rescued from public spaces after they were of no use. It comments on the change brought about as a result of globalization when companies run by traditional sign makers for generations were closed as a result of standardization of signs in public spaces. Their dedicated craft has been preserved in the museum and is celebrated for its unique characteristics.

The museum, by displaying typography in 3 dimensional forms, lends a fresh perspective typography before its digitization and its use and impact on advertising, language, communication and contemporary and urban history. Its informal and interactive atmosphere allows its audience to personalize each experience. The museum looks to interest everyone of all ages and has no particular target audience. The signs are all presented out of content and context thus, can be truly appreciated for the craft of lettering. The curation of the artifacts displayed is solely based on the uniqueness of the signs and its unmodified state. Upon reading the description and history of the sign, the viewer gets to appreciate the sign for not just its craft but also it’s historical and geographical context.

Unlike other museums, the Buchenstaben museum does not delve into the history of typography but instead displays its wide variety of signs that used to exist in various part of Berlin. It delves into each artifact’s history, which purely because of its existence in the city is tangled with the history of Berlin. It exposes its audience to phases in Berlin’s history in an urban context and its forward contemporary design thinking in a time when it was not so common.

The experience in the Buchenstaben museum gave me a new perspective on interactions with artifacts in museums. The Buchenstaben museum felt more like a gallery to me, with personal experiences and playful interactions with the artifacts and the space they were allocated. To me, the interaction went further than just with the artifact, I connected to the urban history as the artifact aimed to explain a story and age with context to the signs. Upon returning from the museum, I also brought with me knowledge about some of the typefaces used such as U8 in common places I transit through everyday like Alexanderplatz.

My personal favorite was the warehouse in the back of the museum where signs, old and new, lay in abundance, varying shapes, sizes and origins. Some taller than me, lay isolated as an object by itself from the rest of the alphabets that would lend knowledge to the original word or name. While some others, in their full form, presented their history and use with the sign itself. The space offered the viewer to interact with three-dimensional signs by using the space it occupied as a result of its informal presentation. The lighting here in the warehouse was dimmed and more universal to all the signs it held as opposed to the front of the museum where the signs were formally displayed, some with switches to turn on neo signs or flashing lights. The thematic presentation of the signs felt accessible and the display of the various materials used for signs was highly informative.

The enriching experience allowed me to peek into a time in Berlin, that compared to the rest of the world was viewed as progressive for its innovation through creation. It gave me a fresh understanding of letters as a form of visual art, independent from its key role in communication. Although the gift shop was geared towards sales for tourists, I believe that only through the keen interest of typographers and signmakers can a museum like the Buchenstaben be sustained and used as a platform and resource for people globally with similar interests. I also do reckon that major cities in the world would benefit from museum such as the Buchenstaben to inform and depict contemporary histories of cities from the perspective of typography.

Text Roshni Kochhar