Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Carolyn and Matt in World's Largest Science Museum: Proceed with Caution

In 1903 Prince Ludwig, the Regent of Baveria who ruled after Ludwig II's death, was approached by Oskar von Miller to act as patron of a science and technology museum. Oskar was an engineer who wanted to showcase all the amazing advances in science that had been made over the previous century. Ludwig liked the idea and gave v. Miller an island in the middle of the Isar River to make the dream come true.

Today, the museum is the world’s largest science and technology museum. Rick Steves is neither a scientist nor a museum fan and thought this was worth at least a morning or afternoon, a healthy chunk of time by his reckoning. Carolyn and I knew this insight translated into roughly a week at our interest level and museum pace. Unfortunately, we only had a day, so we decided to get there at opening and didn’t plan to leave until closing.

It was a brisk Sunday morning. Walking through the shopping district on a Sunday in Germany is like strolling through a ghost town after the Ghostbusters got to work. Fortunately there is plenty of public art on display to add flavor to your quiet stroll.

For some reason this fountain wasn’t shut down. I wonder if it pumps salt water? Regardless, Dionysus really needs to take care of that cold, or at least use a tissue.

The Deutsches Museum in the middle of the Isar. There are multiple branches of the already massive place, including one in Bonn that I have yet to explore.

The only other people on the street were also headed towards the museum. We really didn’t need to worry about competing with the crowds because the building is absolutely massive. We bellied up to the ticket counter and only had to lay down 3 Euro each as students. An entire day of science for 3 Euro? There is no better deal in Europe (except maybe 3 Euro for the Viennese State Opera).

When I looked at the map, I was slightly disappointed. The museum put a lot of emphasis on technology. Exhibits were labeled “Ceramics,” “Mining,” “Photo and Film,” “Shipping.” I’m more of a Natural Sciences person and wasn’t immediately drawn to many of the titles. We decided to start at the back of the museum and work our way forward, entering a reproduction of Altamira Cave, a cave famous for its Paleolithic cave paintings of bison, horses and handprints. This was right up my alley.

After leaving the cave we wandered into the next exhibit entitled “Textile Production.” Normally I would dismiss a room filled with looms, but as Carolyn and I moved from placard to object, we quickly discovered how little we actually knew about how our clothing is made. Dying, synthetic fibers, printing…we were engrossed by the interactive (though slightly worn) exhibits and suddenly realized we had dumped about an hour of our precious time into textiles. I had a sneaking suspicion this would become a trend.

Carolyn looming over a loom. I think this was the moment she figured out how to use the pedals to make a dowel-rod quilt.

The next room was on photography and film where I learned how autofocus actually works and saw one of the first films ever shot in Germany. It was produced in the 1888s on the streets of Frankfurt. Confused Germans walk by the camera wearing bustles and top hats. I was engrossed. I think of films as beginning with Charlie Chaplain, but this material was thirty years older, showing characters I normally think of as frozen in old photographs, or reproduced in historic movies and plays. These were real people, normal people. History blew my mind for a second, then I moved on. There was a lot more to see.

A carrier pigeon who was trained to fly with a camera strapped to his chest. The photo in the foreground show one of the images this camera took (though maybe not this pigeon). It shows Neuschwanstein Castle and the surrounding country side. On the left and right of the image are the bird's beating wings.

By the time we left we had strolled through the section on “Bridges” (How did medieval engineers build across the Rhein?), “Rockets” (How do you produce rocket fuel in 1900?), “Music” (How does an organ work?), “Agriculture” (How do you improve the mill?) and “Boats.” The final exhibit is the centerpiece of the museum with an actual sloop in the center of the hall. The experience was something like walking into the book “The Way Things Work.” We didn’t see the Astronomy section, we blazed through Chemistry where you could push a button at a window and a chemical reaction would take place before your eyes. Automatically measured quantities of chemicals were combined, reacted and drained at your command. Carolyn was interested in the automated waste disposal system the displays must require.…I need to go back. That place was incredible. Carolyn agrees.

A soaring modern bridge that curves over the bridge exhibit.

I would have played trombone in grade school if I knew I could trick out my horn like this.

Not completely sure what this is or how it works, though that crank seems like a good place to start. I think I saw Sting play one of these once. If there's a current musician with such a skill, its Sting.

I take a photograph of myself in front of every linotype machine I encounter. My mom's family were printers before an invention called the computer made their skills obsolete. If it wasn't for IBM, I would probably be a linotype operator.

The centerpiece of the "Boat" exhibit. This sailing vessel was used for fishing in the North Sea until the early 20th century when it was brought to the museum for display. You can go underneath it to see how the crew lived and learn about navigation.

An American commercial vessel built a little after the Revolutionary War carved a Ben Franklin figurehead for their ship. As he is my favorite founding father, I wanted to make sure Ben and I shared a picture together. I tried to replicate his lopsided expression and sagely demeanour.

The place is so massive, that there’s no way to keep all the exhibits up to date, so each display was a kind of time capsule of how educational trends changed over the last century with varying amounts of text, interaction, models and artifacts. The building itself is careworn with little ornament. Really, it’s a very German perspective. You’re here to learn about engines, what are you doing looking at the pretty murals on the walls?
Outside the Deutsches Museum at closing time. The moon was reminding us we had left before exploring the astronomy section.

After the guards shepherded us towards the coat check repeating “Wir sind geschlossen!” we headed towards Frauenkirche for evening mass. A church cannot fully be appreciated until the choir and organ lend their art to the building. Unfortunately, Frauenkirche was practically destroyed by World War II and has a modern, whitewashed interior, making it a less interesting place to sit and stare at the artwork if you don’t understand the language, so Carolyn was especially appreciative of the music, which she could sing, if not understand. In hind sight, maybe mass at one of the ornate baroque churches would have been more visually interesting.

A view of Old Munich from the museum. By city law, no building is allowed to exceed the height of the church spires and bell towers. This is the case in most German - and even European - cities. There's an obvious theological message being broadcast (Nothing is higher than the Church etc.) but there's also a practical function for the edict. The tolling of the bells and publicly displayed clocks were audible and visible from all over the city. If you had buildings blocking the sound, you wouldn't know what time it was and you might suffer the indignity of being late.

With only a light lunch at the museum cafeteria in our systems, we were desperate for dinner. We both felt a little overstuffed with traditional German cuisine, and found an Argentinean restaurant that seemed popular with the locals called Moredo. It’s actually a chain of restaurants, and I’ve seen other locations in just about every city I’ve visited, but it’s a German chain, so it still offers a bit of cultural insight such as a beer list that varies by city, and options you wouldn’t find at home.

Desert was at Häagen-Dazs. I know, I know, it’s an American chain that’s gone international, but the day before I saw a poster for “Ice Cream Fondue” and got a little excited. It looked pretty big and pretty delicious with balls of ice cream and sliced fruit coupled with melted dark chocolate. It’s a date night ensemble, and this was the last date I would have until next August. Carolyn was game to try it.

Really, the fondue should be thought of as a double-date night option. With a couple dozen slices of fruit including bananas, pineapples, and strawberries, and a half-dozen different flavors of ice cream, it took some determination for the two of us to make it through the decadent desert. But it was a great choice on our part. And nothing leaves me as satisfied as a good choice.

After one more night with Esmerelda watching over us, we checked out of Hotel Daheim and caught an early train to the Frankfurt airport. With some time to kill we found a bakery in the airport for breakfast. It was actually a little awkward. What do you discuss before saying good-bye? Personally, I had grow accustomed to having Carolyn by my side and it was only just sinking in that this would change in about an hour.

I’m a wuss with hot coffee, a trait I picked up from my father. I need to let it sit and cool down. As I was nursing my mug, waiting of it to drop to a tolerable temperature while summarizing the trip with Carolyn, an announcement came over the intercom, “All passengers departing for Washington D.C. are asked to proceed to the gate.” Carolyn had to go an hour before she was supposed to board! I tried to down my coffee in one gulp, but burned my throat and danced around the table like an antsy five-year-old. Really, the best final image I could hope to leave with my girlfriend who I won’t see (except on Skype) for another seven months.

We stood outside the security gate and shared a final kiss. She disappeared past the x-ray scanners and I turned to the escalator, feeling very alone for the first time in two weeks.

I bought my train ticket, confidently rolling my bag through an airport that terrified me in August when I first dropped into this wonderful country. The end of 2008 was about getting my bearings in a place that, only a year before, I had no idea I would be visiting. 2009 is about becoming a part of the culture, delving into the language and projects with new confidence and direction. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Stay tuned to see how well I keep my resolution.


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