Memorial and Education Centre Andreasstraße: Prison Museums and Memory


Justin Reid gives his opinion on the prison-turned-museum Andreasstraße

Entrance to the Memorial and Education Centre Andreasstraße

Visiting new museums as a trained museum professional is like being a mechanic examining a vehicle for the first time. You’re constantly thinking about what’s “under the hood.” You’re looking for particular components, while trying to imagine design and curatorial decision-making. You’re examining how well the museum conveys interpretive themes and why those themes were even chosen. Who’s the intended primary audience? Is it engaging? Does it feel relevant? When I first entered Andreasstraße, I had my doubts. By the time I left, I felt it was one of the most well-conceived museums I had ever toured.

Before coming to Germany, I had already visited two other historic former prison museums. Philadelphia’s 1829-founded Eastern State Penitentiary has been transformed into a museum that convincingly educates against mass incarceration in the U.S. Robben Island — where political dissidents, including Nelson Mandela, forcibly labored in apartheid South Africa — now offers powerful public tours led by former prisoners. I expected a similarly sobering and compelling tour at Andreasstraße, an historic site museum about political repression and the youth-led democratic movement in formerly Communist-controlled East Germany.

Upon entering the museum’s surprisingly light-hearted lobby, visitors encounter one side of a giant “black mirrored cube” covered in what appears to be comic book-style graphics. In my notes, I wrote Entrance design sets incongruous tone as if designers overtried to create a hip, trendy museum — a common occurrence among museums desperate to attract diverse and increasingly more distracted, young audiences. The tour, however, alleviated my concerns. I eventually realized this museum wasn’t designed for me; it was very intentionally designed to resonate with teenagers today. Over time, public memory loses its power without a younger generation who’s willing and motivated to carry it — a reality Andreasstraße has truly taken to heart.