Military History Museum Dresden
The Military History Museum (German: Militärhistorisches Museum) in Dresden is a large German museum aimed to present the consequences of war and the history of the German Army from the 14th century to date; it is housed in a former arsenal expanded after a design of architect Daniel Libeskind.
Military History Museum Dresden, south facade; © Hufton+Crow photography
History and architecture
The Military History Museum is located on the outskirts of Dresden, a city tragically famous as the target of one of the most devastating bombings of World War II which, in February 1945, largely destroyed the historical center of the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Saxony.
The museum was established in 1897, housed in a classic-revival style arsenal building completed 20 years before, to depict the history of the Royal Saxon Army, and in 1991 was converted into the museum of the Bundeswehr, the Armed Forces of the then recently reunified Germany.
In 2001 an architectural competition was held for the expansion and renovation of the museum, after which Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind was selected to redevelop its building.
Aerial view of the museum, photo © Matthias Kunde
Military History Museum Dresden, model, north-south section, and south elevation; images courtesy of Studio Libeskind
Completed in 2011, the expansion by Libeskind is a 5-story iconic arrow-shaped wing, made in glass, steel, and concrete.
Libeskind’s idea was to create a contrast between the rigid, austere arsenal and the new expansion, which wedged, transparent shape asymmetrically penetrated the historical, opaque building to transform it forever, both functionally and symbolically, as well as to mark the difference between old authoritarianism and modern democracy in Germany.
“The new façade’s openness and transparency is intended to contrast with the opacity and rigidity of the existing building. The latter represents the severity of the authoritarian past, while the former reflects the transparency of the military in a democratic society. The interplay between these perspectives forms the character of the new Military History Museum” (Daniel Libeskind)
There is no doubt that the design was conditioned by the museum being, albeit only partially, dedicated to the history of the German Army, which is a difficult theme in general and a very sensitive one for a Polish Jew like Libeskind, furthermore considering that the old museum was one of the most appreciated by the Nazi propaganda. Therefore, Libeskind’s “bold” approach, both from an architectural and a conceptual point of view, aimed to mark that the museum has (and must have) a very different significance today than it had before WWII and the Holocaust, is certainly remarkable.
Photo © Jan Bitter
98 feet over the street level, the tip of the wedge points toward the direction from which – on the night of February 13, 1945 – the first firebombs were dropped on Dresden during the Allied air raid. On top of the expansion, an 82-foot high viewing platform overlooks the city.
Exterior and interior views of the “wedge” and its viewing platform; © Hufton+Crow photography
Internally, the wedge cuts the chronological exhibition which presents the history of the German Army in the point corresponding to years between 1914 and 1945, thus splitting it into two distinct parts to affirm that there should be a Germany “before” and a Germany “after” that period.
Also, the spaces in the old building were completely redesigned, together with the permanent exhibition to which an array of thematic sections was added (see the detailed description of the permanent exhibition below).
The extension and renovation project increased the exhibition area of the museum to over 210,000 square feet, making it the largest in Germany.
Site plan © Studio Libeskind, and interior view © Hufton+Crow
Permanent exhibition and collection
The permanent exhibition of the Militärhistorisches Museum is conceived to set the institution apart from more traditional war museums which often are, more or less subtly, a celebration of a country’s military glory.
Therefore, the Dresden museum approach to war is modern and “empathic”, and it focuses chiefly on the impact of conflicts on people, as well as on the personal experiences of soldiers and civilians in time of war. Featuring over 7,500 items, the permanent exhibition was designed by Swiss architects Holzer Kobler in collaboration with Studio Libeskind.
While the section presenting the history of the German Army is arranged chronologically, the exhibition dedicated to the relationship between war and people is divided into thematic sections: War and memory, Politic and violence, Military and society, Animals and military, Suffering the war, Military and technology, Military education, Protection and destruction, and Challenges of 21st century.
Amounting to over one million pieces, dating from 1300 onwards, the museum collection, one of the largest in the world, includes military vehicles, scale replicas, weapons, ammunition, uniforms, insignia, armor, medals, musical instruments, utensils, kitchen pewter, historical documents, videos, photographs, and works of art.
View of the permanent exhibition; © Hufton+Crow
Views of the permanent exhibition; © Jan Bitter
The museum building includes temporary exhibition galleries, a library/information center with over 36,000 volumes, a multimedia auditorium, educational spaces, a restaurant, and a museum shop.
All images courtesy of Studio Libeskind and Holzer Kobler Architekturen
Cover image © Hufton+Crow
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