Less is More: On Visiting the Erich Kästner Museum
One criticism of modern museums is that they are typically too large to navigate, and create a very real division between the visitor and the objects on display. As such, the museum creates a predefined path, leaving very little to the visitor’s initiative. The overabundance of historical interpretations intended to help the visitor often leaves them completely exhausted and oversaturated to the point of forgetfulness: “there are too many artifacts, and all of these dates and names seem very important!” In such instances, it’s not uncommon to experience the “catalogue effect” of remembering lots of images in a sequence but little to no information. The Erich Kästner museum in Dresden manages to surmount these difficulties.
Designed by the Irish architect Ruarí O’Brien, the museum is situated in the Villa Augustin, previously owned by Kästner’s uncle, near one of Dresden’s liveliest neighborhoods, the Neustadt. The museum was founded to honour the life and works of Erich Kästner (1899-1974), a German author and a newspaper journalist, whose most renowned titles include Emil and the Detectives (1929) and Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten (1931, Fabian, the Story of a Moralist). He also wrote for the Berliner Tageblatt, Vossische Zeitung, and Die Weltbühne. Following a short introduction given by the museum guide (situating Kästner’s life and works within the context of German and particularly Dresden history), the visitor enters an exhibition that consists of only one room.
The experience is less disappointing than it sounds. What’s relevant here is that the visitor now has ultimate control over his/her experience. There’s no particular order in which things ‘ought’ to be viewed or read; the only structured elements in the room are thirteen columns with multicoloured drawers: the green ones, containing documents and information about Erich Kästner’s early life; red, Kästner’s role as a moralist and social critic; yellow, children, the focal point of Kästner’s works; and blue, Kästner’s use of the media as journalist and playwright.
The central column holds a computer with Internet access, and other artifacts such as Kästner’s first editions, some letters, and his hat and coat. According to the introductory leaflet, the virtual speed of the computer is intended to contrast with the relaxed pace of visiting in person.
After the initial, bewildering shock of entering only a single room, the visitor discovers that they are actually allowed to handle the ‘documents’—unmediated by glass cases or ropes. Although they are copies, the pedagogical value is no different than if they were originals. Equipped with the power of interpretation, the visitor remembers so much more than they would if they had been spoon-fed the information by a curator. This freedom of choice makes each visit to the Erich Kästner museum unique: every visitor discovers a different museum, though the space remains the same. This also implies also that no one artifact is more important than any other, and that each one lends insight into Kästner’s life.
Once you have finished touring the exhibit, don’t forget to explore the rest of the villa. During spring or summer, it’s especially nice to spend time in the garden. Look closely at the top of the wall that divides the garden from the street, and you’ll see a statue of a child. It’s Kästner himself, and he’s having a look at the Albertplatz from his uncle’s garden. Feel free to join him for a while, it’s very pleasant.