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Conservation Course Study Trip Berlin 1995

Andrew Lamb and Hannah Eastwood
Students on the RCA/V&A Conservation Course

 From 17 to 21 June, this summer, Helen Jones and the students of the RCA/V&A Conservation Course visited Berlin and its environs for the Course study trip.

Its turbulent history as capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and, more recently, the German nation-state has combined with the years of division and re-unification to result in the creation of a city rich in cultural heritage. The transition from a divided city towards that as the capital of a regenerated nation has left many quirks and scars which are still being addressed. This dynamic process is constantly being thrust in the visitor's face and plans for monumental changes are publicly displayed all over the city.

While the course study trip was in progress, another major artistic endeavour was taking place. The old parliament building, the Reichstag, was being covered in a huge silver fabric wrapping by a team of intrepid volunteers under the direction of Christo, the Bulgarian artist. As a result of all this attention, a grand fair had formed along the Unter-den-Linden which was the first historical site that the Course chose to visit on arrival. This afforded an opportunity for us all to get a little familiar with the feel of the city and also to sample some excellent German beer.

We were accommodated near the old city centre, on the Museumsinsel, which had been in the Eastern sector. It was conveniently close to the Pergamon Museum, National Galerie and also the Conservation Department of the Deutsches Historisches Museum which was our first organised port of call. We were made very much at home by the Chief Conservator, Frau Ursula Fuhrer. Visits were made to all departments (paper, books, textiles, ceramics and glass, wood and furniture, metal, and paintings). The majority of staff were able to speak English with a reasonable degree of fluency so communication was not a problem.

In the interests of flexibility we had not made too many firm plans for visiting other centres. Frau Fuhrer was more than helpful in organising this and allowed us the use of her office to confirm other arrangements. In this manner it was possible to satisfy the specialist needs of each of the students. Visits were arranged to Schloss Charlottenburg, the Bauhaus Archiv and the Musicalische Museum at Tiergarten, Museum fur Volkerkunde at Dahlemdorf, and that great collection of baroque palaces and follies at Potsdam. This left plenty of time for other cultural pursuits although the exchange rate meant shopping wa a less than prolific activity.

The tour of Schloss Charlottenburg was most comprehensive. The palace had been restored following bomb damage and the conservation staff were currently working on a large oak-panelled gallery which was in frequent use for government hospitality functions. There were negotiations in hand to control its continued us as there were fears of the effects of food, smoke and candle wax on the newly restored wood.

A whole day was dedicated to touring Potsdam which lay on the outskirts of Berlin. The palace complex was commissioned in the mid 18th century by Frederick II. The grand centrepiece was the palace 'Sans Soucci' which was decorated in the Prussian Rococo style. The rest of the grounds were extensive and included several other palaces and curiosities including a Chinese pagoda tea house.

A visit to Berlin would not have been complete without a tour of some famous sites. The itinerary included the limestone bust of Nefertiti in the Agyptisches Museum, Check-point Charlie, the Berlin Wall (site of), Christopher Isherwood's flat and, finally, a rather sleazy and quite mind-boggling cabaret.

On our final morning we were welcomed by the science staff of the Central Research Laboratories near Charlottenburg. The labs were impressively equipped with a highly organised library. The organisation offers an analytical and research service to all the Berlin museums.

During all these tours and visits we were introduced to a number of facets of German conservation practice. Potential conservators are expected to spend a number of years in voluntary service before they are accepted on a degree programme. Public access to museum objects is strictly controlled so German conservators also have a role in the production of copies of choice items which can be used to provide handling collections.

We learnt a great deal from our trip and all the students join in thanking our hosts and organisers for their efforts in making the tour most memorable. Particularly the contortionist.