When Erich Mendelsohn’s new Schocken department store opened in Chemnitz in 1930 Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst, one of the leading architecture periodicals of the age, were unsparing in their praise “With his new Schocken department store in Chemnitz Erich Mendelsohn has achieved a new peak in his creativity”, they announced.1
With the conversion of Mendelsohn’s construction to the new Staatlichen Museum für Archäologie Chemnitz – the State Archaeology Museum in Chemnitz – the responsible authorities have perhaps not reached their peak, but have created an institution that not only makes archaeology clear and intelligible, but which sets new standards in exhibition design.
The conversion of the former department store was undertaken by Stuttgart architects Auer Weber in conjunction with Dresden based Knerer und Lang Architekten, and in contrast to Egon Eiermann’s trash and burn approach when faced with an Erich Mendelsohn Schocken building in Stuttgart, Auer Weber have realised a much more respectful project that maintains much of the original character, if little of the original interior. Perhaps the best compliment that one can give the conversion is that the interior of the museum still resembles a department store; which we mean positively. Something about the white painted pillars and the open plan floors lead you to believe that, with a bit of luck, on the floor above you might be able to find a pair of jeans on special offer. And a new jumper.
What you will find is an archaeology exhibition that is unquestionably an archaeology exhibition. Documenting the past 300,000 years of the region now covered by Sachsen in a 3600 sqm presentation, the Staatlichen Museum für Archäologie Chemnitz, smac, permanent exhibition has been designed by Stuttgart based creative agency Atelier Brückner and in addition to the expected pots, bones, spearheads et al on display in glass cases, interactive, multi-media presentations of times long lost and models of how we used to live, also features displays devoted to the flora and fauna of the region, an exploration of the anatomical characteristics of the residents of the region and a brief look at the beginnings of industrialisation in the 19th century. Modern architecture, if you will.
Despite the scale of the exhibition the openness of the space means that it doesn’t feel like you are in a museum. Makes it more relaxed. Less daunting. Easier.
A principle reason for this relaxed atmosphere is the central atrium the rises vertically through the three exhibition floors and which houses at its base an interactive map of Sachsen, an interactive map in which all the secrets of the region, its inhabitants, geology and culture are contained. And an interactive map which in weeks to come will move vertically through the atrium…. we’ve not seen it do that yet and so cannot comment on how it moves or what effect it generates. We will however keep you updated.
As an architectural feature the atrium was contained in Auer Weber’s original plans and, as good fortune would have it, also fitted the wishes of the other two parties to the conversion, “the museum wanted a story that was continuous and not a stop-start narration separated by floors” explains Professor Uwe Brückner from Atelier Brückner, “and for our part we wanted to have a vertical element, a vertical context so that there is a physical and visual connection between the different parts of the exhibition.”
The atrium facilitates both these wishes and, as we say, the visitor benefits from a museum space that positively invites one to take things slowly.
In addition to explaining the story of Sachsen the smac permanent exhibition also helps elucidate how archaeologists work and why archaeology is relevant and important, while a vertical depiction of a soil profile running next to the staircase allows an impression of how the ground under your feet, may, look. A very nice touch that helps place archaeology in a context that all visitors can understand and relate to.
Beyond the core archaeological exhibition the new Staatlichen Museums für Archäologie Chemnitz also includes an introduction to Erich Mendelsohn, Salman Schocken and the department store dynasty they helped make the legend it is and was. Sympathetically housed in the curved outer walls of the three exhibition floors the display of photos, models, personal items and models has the character of an informal cabinet exhibition and a charm that very nicely rounds the smac experience.
Full details, including opening times and ticket prices – currently only in German – can be found at smac.sachsen.de
A few impressions:
1. Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst, Issue 14, 1930