5 Questions for: Thomas Strehl

21 January 2022

The Zeughaus, the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s main building, is currently closed for renovation and the permanent exhibition “German History from the Middle Ages to the Fall of the Berlin Wall” is being carefully dismantled and put into storage. At the same time, the DHM is busy working on plans for a new Permanent Exhibition – a major project affecting all departments across the museum. In our interview series „5 Questions for…“, we give museum curators and staff the chance to talk about their personal memories of the last permanent exhibition and what they are working on now. This time we talked to Thomas Strehl, exhibition technician specialising in lighting and electrics of Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Mr. Strehl, the permanent exhibition shut in late June. Was there a particular object or section in the exhibition that occupied a special place for you?

Thomas Strehl: Both – there’s one object I liked above all others and there’s one section that personally resonated with me. My favorite object is and always was the neon sign for Florida ice cream. For one, because I personally think it’s aesthetically pleasing and for another because it was an object that also served a function: it lit up the space. I personally assisted in its installation, back in 2006 and I have looked after the object ever since. If some part or other broke, if the neon tubes had to be taken down, or if we had to call in lighting technicians, it was my job to take care of it. That’s how it ended up growing on me over time.

Apart from that, there was one section of the permanent exhibition that I could strongly relate to: the part on divided Germany. In a way, it told my own history. My father was a master bricklayer and he took part in the workers’ uprisings in East Berlin on 17 June 1953, and was subsequently arrested. He spent a short time incarcerated and fled to West Germany immediately after his release from prison. It wasn’t until after reunification, in 1990, that he dared set foot on East German soil again. He had visited West Berlin on numerous occasions since the 50s, often for work, but he always flew in and out of Tegel and never travelled by car or train – because that would’ve meant going through East German border control.

Were you involved in setting up the permanent exhibition in time for the opening in 2006? Was there anything from that time that left a lasting impression on you? Or in all the years that the last collection display was up, would you say there was a section that was redesigned in a way you found impressive?

I started working at the museum when the very first collection display was being dismantled. I started at the DHM in 1998 and by the end of the year the museum had already closed. It was an exciting time to work here: everybody was working towards setting up the next permanent exhibition and its unveiling in 2006. What I remember most about this time were the long nights spent installing everything in the final days and weeks. All in all, it was a lot of fun.

From our point of view – that is, the point of view of the technical staff – we naturally have quite a different take on any modifications to the permanent displays. What we ask ourselves first is: What changes are possible and how? And one thing I always think about is what’s the best possible lighting for the exhibit.

In any case, the revamped section on colonialism in 2020 was definitely something special, even though, sadly, it ended up only being on display for just a short time due to the pandemic. Besides that, I suppose I also thought the small curatorial interventions that were made to the permanent exhibition every so often were very interesting. One example was the display “LAYERS OF TIME: German History through the Lens of the Berlin Zeughaus”, where we had historical photographs on view showing what the Zeughaus looked like in the two previous centuries. For instance, there was a picture of the staircase in the Zeughaus courtyard, and you could see the same place in the present day, with the stairs no longer there. I really liked the idea of using the architecture of the building as a window into history.

The Zeughaushof with an installation as part of the exhibition “LAYERS OF TIME: German History through the Lens of the Berlin Zeughaus” © Siesing/DHM

What was the biggest challenge for you when it came to taking down the last permanent exhibition?

We have to keep an eye on the entire dismantling process, because we have to know and factor in precisely when large objects will be removed and where to, so that we can give ourselves enough time to dismantle or scrap all the surrounding parts of the display. The power supply to each affected section must be cut and all lighting dismantled before anyone starts laying a hand on the objects themselves. In the case of the automobiles on the ground floor, for example, the display cases below were disconnected from the mains in advance.

Can you give us an idea of the exhibition’s scale: How many lights were needed to illuminate it?

The last permanent exhibition contained something like 2,800 lamps. We would walk through the exhibition every day and inspect all the light fixtures to see if anything was malfunctioning. And in certain areas we also had a computer to tell us if any lights were out. We would be out in the scissor lift every day, moving through galleries replacing the broken lamps. We would adjust the brightness and then the last thing we would do was measure their output. We always did that after consulting with the curatorial staff and conservators, because the exhibits react very differently to variations in the lux value under the lights.

Is there anything you think we should bear in mind when it comes to planning the new permanent exhibition?

It would be nice if we could get a new lighting system. The current system is outdated and uses halogen lights. But in recent years, well actually, over the last decade in fact, there has been a strong shift towards using LEDs. We can now also light the Pei Building with LEDs on almost all four floors.

Some areas of the Zeughaus have already converted to LEDs. This gave us the opportunity to examine the costs involved in purchasing and maintaining an LED lighting system as opposed to one that uses halogens. At the end of the day, the kind of lighting you choose also affects how much heat is generated within the galleries, which in turn affects the climate controls.

LED lighting is preferable in the museum space, because it comes with a much lower risk of damaging the objects, so they can even be illuminated at higher levels – well that’s the theory at least.