Life In Berlin: Schwules Museum's 30th Anniversary

Jan 13, 2016

Berlin's Schwules Museum celebrates its 30th birthday with Tapetenwechsel. The title of the show, which translates to "Change of Scenery," comes from a famous song by the late German diva, Hildegard Knef. The exhibition documents gay and lesbian life. It rediscovers objects and art from the museum's collection.

"It's a cross-section of the collection's history. We really started from scratch," says Wolfgang Theis, curator and co-founder of the Schwules Museum.

"A pair of elegant leather shoes are displayed at the entrance to the show in honor of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a fellow museum founder and a prominent transvestite," explains Theis. Von Mahlsdorf's museum used to be the center of East Berlin's homosexual scene.

Theis points out a picture of Lenin. He says, "Many visitors wonder why Lenin is in this exhibition."

"Lenin decriminalized homosexuality in Soviet Russia during the 1920s," he explains. It only lasted for three years before it became a criminal offense again. 

Wolfgang Theis, co-founder and curator at Schwules Museum, standing in front of a picture of Helmut Kohl with "§175" crossed out.
Credit Monika Müller-Kroll

A photo of Helmut Kohl is equally surprising to visitors. Below Kohl's image, paragraph 175 of the German criminal code is crossed out. Different versions of paragraph 175 had punished homosexuals for more than 120 years in Germany.

Theis calls it an irony of history that conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl liberated gays from the burden of paragraph 175. It happened in the wake of reunification. East Germany had already abolished the criminalization of gay and lesbian sex in the late 80's. He adds that the paragraph didn't play an important role anymore in the early 90's.

The Schwules Museum has become an important institution in Berlin. Museums, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., seek their expertise.

Theis says, "There is not much left on gays in concentration camps, but what they have, they lend to other institutions. And," he says, "for other reasons, relatives still often get rid of everything. When they discovered Uncle Willi was gay, it ends up in the garbage and not with the museum."

Tapetenwechsel, the Schwules Museum's anniversary show, runs until May 12th.