Experiencing museums in times of crisis

The little house in Buckow where Brecht and Weigel spent their summers. 

Now that the lockdown is easing in many parts of Germany I thought it would be a good idea to visit a few museums. It was definitely nice to be out and about again  despite the ongoing pandemic, but following social distancing rules in smaller local museums was clearly not easy.

My first trip took me to the Brecht-Weigel-Haus in Buckow close to Berlin, where the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and his actress wife and long-term collaborator Helene Weigel (1900-1971) spent their summers from 1952.

The little house by the lake Schermützelsee is a beautiful and quiet place which looks ideal for writing, relaxing and meeting friends. It is very bright and cosy and surrounded by a lovely garden overlooking the lake. Alas, due to the social distancing rules, only two people were allowed into any room at a time, which did not work too well.

Especially the first room after the reception was way too small to cope with even small groups of visitors. The little room contained much of the biographical information on Brecht and Weigel as well as reproductions of original documents from the 1950s, some of them dealing with the East German uprising of 1953, which took some time to read. We could have spent at least an hour in there, but felt we had to move on quickly to let other visitors in.

The second and main room of the house, a large and airy living room was much better, partly because you could walk around and look at the furniture and pictures without colliding with anyone. But there was little information to contextualise what you were seeing. Much of the fun of the visit consisted in imagining how Brecht, Weigel and their friends were sitting on the odd collection of chairs around the big central table smoking, drinking and debating.

Brecht and Weigel’s garden overlooking the lake.

Outside in the garden was another little building with an exhibition on Brecht and Weigel’s theatre work which had costumes and props, including the cart of the famous Mother Courage, from which she peddled her wares to the soldiers during the Thirty Years War. Again, there was much to do and see – including many drawers filled with pictures and documents relating to the Berliner Ensemble.

But as soon as you got absorbed in the exhibit, other visitors started queuing outside, waiting impatiently for you to leave or just coming in and getting into your personal space, so that the only thing you could do was to leave (if you did not want to start an argument about social distancing).

The garden itself was great though because we could just walk around or sit down and relax. Probably the best place to be when it gets too crowded inside. I just wonder how these museums survive. I doubt they can even live on ticket sales in normal times, nevermind in times when you can only fit a fraction of the usual crowd.

Open Air Museums

The open air museum in Kommern still had lots of space to walk around.

The open air museum in Kommern in the Eifel, on the other side of Germany, clearly does much better in these weird and uncertain times. We had been visiting my parents nearby in the Rhineland, and I was keen to return to one of my favourite museums from my childhood. I was not disappointed.

Of course, it was not possible to enter most of the little half-timbered early modern houses from the region they had rebuilt on the site – they were just too small and badly aired for social distancing – but it was still possible to walk around the historic buildings from the Eifel, Lower Rhine, Bergisches Land and Westerwald regions.

The farmyards were accessible too, and some of the more spacious buildings had little exhibitions in them to read up on detail. You could also still see the animals: horses and ponies out on the paddock, cows lying on the grass chewing, and chickens milling around between the visitors.


Alas, the village hall and schoolhouse were closed, as was the pub in the post house. There were fewer actors about than usual. We could not watch the baker make bread, and the little corner shop had to move its wares into a little kiosk outside to avoid overcrowding. But it was still worth it.

The village shop had moved its wares into an outside kiosk.

As the museum is spread across an area of 100 hectares with individual settlements separated by woodland, it was possible to walk around without bumping into anyone or feeling you were in someone’s way. And since you were mostly outside, you did not even need to wear a mask a lot of the time.

As an acknowledgement of the limited access, the museum even waved the entrance fee and only asked for voluntary donations. But, judging from the many notes in the donation box, it seems that most visitors probably felt it was still worth their while. So, if you have not been to an open air museum lately, I would definitely recommend it for these weird and uncertain times.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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