Berlin’s city centre is full of trees. In autumn they turn every possible shade of yellow, orange and red and drop their leaves to form copper-coloured carpets. An idyllic scene under blue skies, but not so great in the rain, when the pavements and cycle paths turn slippery and treacherous. This Monday was especially grey and wet. Our planned trip to the Tiergarten was abandoned and changed into a museum visit. I wanted to check out a couple of places that have opened since the publication of ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and one is the brand new ‘Spy Museum Berlin’ on Leipziger Platz. It’s right next to Potsdamer Platz station and on numerous bus routes. It’s also open seven days a week (unlike many museums and galleries in Berlin, which are closed on Mondays) and has a café on site. The perfect solution for a rainy day.
The slick ‘Spy Museum Berlin’ building on Leipziger Platz
The ‘Spy Museum Berlin’ first opened its doors on Saturday 19th September 2015, in an impressive building only a stone’s throw from Potsdamer Platz. During the city’s division this whole area was either part of the Berlin Wall death strip or just wasteland, so it’s a great location for a museum devoted to spooks and spying. There are 3,000 square metres of exhibition space covering the history of espionage from antiquity to contemporary whistleblower platforms like Wikileaks. On display are over 300 objects used by spies and secret agents, such as a camera-concealing watering can, an umbrella and a lipstick. One of the prize exhibits is an original ‘Enigma’ decoding device.
The Bulgarian spy umbrella
As soon as you step inside the building, you are faced with dozens of CCTV cameras, some of them recording live footage which is broadcast to screens on the wall. You then enter the exhibition through a special ‘high security’ door. An introduction area gives a timeline of the long history of espionage before you follow the digitally enhanced staircase to the main exhibition floor. Here the displays are arranged chronologically, with a special emphasis on the Cold War in Berlin. There are themed displays too. They include cryptology, poison, double agents and the use of animals in espionage, plus a James Bond section with fictional gadgets.
The stairway to spying
If you want to get interactive you can try your hand at deciphering and password hacking, or even attempt the laser parcours. The museum also boasts around 200 touch screens and monitors with content and information you can access at your own pace. But perhaps the Spy Museum’s unique selling point is the previously unpublished film footage recorded especially for the museum, featuring interviews with former top spies and espionage experts.
The laser parcours
Entry to the Spy Museum costs 18 euros per adult – quite a lot to pay unless you spend a couple of hours there and have a real interest in espionage. But this sleek museum with it own brand will no doubt find plenty of fans in a city that has starred in countless spy movies and used to be the “capital of espionage”. Everything is in both German and English to give it international appeal, yet it lacks the authentic feel you get from visiting places where history actually happened. You only need to come out of the Spy Museum, walk a few metres towards Potsdamer Platz, through an archway in the grand Leipziger Platz edifices, to find an original GDR panorama watchtower from the Berlin Wall era. Standing in the rain on Erna-Berger-Straße, looking up into its turret, I felt a frisson of the Cold War Berlin feeling for the first time that day.
The only remaining ‘Panorama Watchtower’ in Berlin