The Character of Characters

To walk into the Buchstabenmuseum Schauplatz on Leipzigerstrasse is to enter open storage, the most gratifying kind of cramped space. Just inside the door is a neon T, twelve feet high, from an old DTV sign, just one piece of retired information in a mass of rust, paint and chrome. It‘s a grammar of factories, facades and commerce – disassembled, discharged from their origins and not exactly repurposed. – by Emily Segal

The Museum for Letters, Characters and Typefaces is really only these 200 square meters, packed with signage and vernacular type from public spaces in Berlin and surrounding areas. It feels like a walk inside an erector set or typesetting kit, with the kind of pleasurable violation of aura, scale and proximity also found in cargo holds, Costco and Vegas. 

Curators Barbara Dechant, a type designer, and Anja Schulze, a press agent for the Stadtmuseum Berlin, started the project in 2005 based on Dechant‘s private type collection, and moved into the Schauplatz in 2008 when their cellars were full. The goal was to set up an archive and ‚recycling center‘ for three-dimensional lettering (not print) – a space for reading letters not just as text but as physical objects. The museum, which houses more than 300 pieces, is currently open only every second Saturday of the month.
Negotiating the chaos – which is dotted by official museum wall tags explaining the fonts‘ history – the curators point out their oldest example, a white handmade script that spells Schuhe, 50 or 60 years old. Then there‘s an M, one of 8 or 10 Ms left over from the big DDR Markthalle complex, next to a big white A from Kultur Kaufhaus Dussmann.  The thin bright blue „Rundfunk“ in the corner was scored „unofficially“ last year from the former Deutscher Demokratischer Rundfunk media center.

Usually the acquisition process is classic urban rummage: Dechant and Schulze hear about a building about to be demolished, rent a half-ton truck and go rescue the letters themselves. But in the case of a set of big yellow letters that used to label a building in Lichtenberg, it was actually in the contract for demolition that the letters should be taken down neatly and delivered to the Buchstabenmuseum, which suggests the possible future of the museum as an official repository for landmarked type. The curators plan to move into a (much) larger space, where the letters could be spread out and the viewer could „see their patina.“ The imagined Buchstabenmuseum would have a permanent exhibition on the history of type with room for experimental shows and artists‘ projects.
The sole exception to the museum‘s three-dimensional-letters-only rule is an original menu from the „legendary“ Cafe Adler at Checkpoint Charlie. And not everything has a rich historical patina – there‘s a bright white neon sign from a 2009 H&M ad. Dechant finds the LED lights and attenuated R of a contemporary, chrome Daimler-Chrysler sign so „delicious“ she‘s painted full scale replicates of the letters on her bedroom walls.

There isn‘t much room to walk among the piles. Hopping through, it‘s easy to take a turn and catch a view of the letters that isn‘t legible at all. All of a sudden, it‘s just stuff, junk, architectural detritus. When all textual, commercial and mnemonic qualities are lost, these materials could be as much cornice as phrase. This  moment –  when a letter‘s physical dimensions stand in the way of its interpretation as text – is the principle of the Buchstabenmuseum. For one, the curators see it as a semiotic challenge for exhibitions: „When we see an A or a B we know what that means, but when we look at the lettering of another culture we don‘t know the semantic content,“ remarks Schulze. „It would be an interesting approach for an exhibit, how signs of different cultures function as documents.“ This extends to other ideas Schulze outlines for the future: exhibitions about special characters, ligatures, the &-sign and the @-sign, plus the relations between letters and food, music, and cars.
It‘s underwear in the case of the Palmer‘s Unterw√§sche P, books in the case of the DTV T that dominates the space: the letters wouldn‘t exist without the commercial production that the signs hawked in the first place. The Buchstabenmuseum‘s ‚method‘ of piling up letters as three-dimensional objects only emphasizes how the these big neon signs and rust angles are, first, artifacts of the world of manufactured things and second, things themselves.

The museum‘s mission statement mentions „the increasing homogenization of the urban landscape“ and the „rise of the Corporate Logo“ as reasons why traditional signage must be rescued. One excellent example, the entire phrase ‚Rathaus Passagen‘ in acrylic, was recovered after the old sign was retooled in Plexiglas three years ago. But this kind of corporate rebranding and urban turnover is both scourge and source. Regarding a set of landmarked signage from the Karl Marx Buchhandlung in Friedrichshein, Schulze explained: „We‘re obviously happy that those letters have been preserved as a monument – they‘ll stay on the facade regardless of what business comes next in that space – though of course we had the hope that we‘d be able to take them in. On one hand it‘s a shame that these traditional companies close and are torn down, but at the same time we have an opportunity here to further explain the histories of these places. We‘re ambivalent.“

Despite the museum‘s purported mission to present „the letter as a content-free sign,“ every letter in the room is not only an alphabetic sign but also a trace of what‘s left behind: either a building that‘s been torn down, or the new sign in its place. Every letter is a trophy of its origins. The Buchstabenmuseum can‘t help being about urban development; it is as much a typography museum as an archive of branding, logos, and corporate identities stamped on urban space. In light of this, it seems fitting that the store room is financed as a kind of public service by Tobias Wilmerhold, who‘s building a Motel 1 across the way in the clearing on Leipzigerstrasse –  the museum‘s own space is predicated upon this kind of regeneration and displacement.

Dechant points out that the font on the wall labels is the standard font used on all German highway signs: unobtrusive, easily read, commanding. „It‘s like a system font on your computer,“ she says, „a font that‘s nothing.“ In any case, the Buchstabenmuseum itself proves that when it comes to letters, there‘s no such thing.   ◊

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