The Container for The Thing Contained

This post is the result of a recent first visit to Berlin; and in particular to the Altes, Neues and Jüdiches Museums there. These irreverently brought to mind James Thurber’s story Here Lies Miss Groby and her concept of the Container for the Thing Contained, explained as an example of a particular type of metonym. James Thurber (1942)

The real pretext of the story is the old joke

           ” A: What’s your head all bandaged up for?

             B: I got hit with some tomatoes.

             A: How could that bruise you so bad?

             B: These tomatoes were in a can.”

Inverting the concept into The Thing Contained for the Container.

These three museums all have interesting and different relationships between the artefacts they display and the buildings that contain them. In each case this effects the way the observer perceives the artefacts.

Although un-planned the museums were visited in the order they were built.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s neo-classical Altes Museum was built as the Royal Museum (1823-30). It was damaged during the Second World War and restored in clean white-walled museum style (1951-66). The two-storey layout is very easy to navigate with a very imposing central circular, dark Pantheon type space, the dome of which is hidden externally so as not to detract from the nearby original Dom building.

The museum houses a collection of Classical Greek, Hellenistic, Roman and Etruscan Statues and related objects that are displayed in a straightforward manner within white walls and blinds. Statues are on simple plinths and are actually touchable. Other objects are in simple glass cases with smaller items such as coins being displayed in adjacent smaller rooms. The effect is of objects that are in a visually harmonious relationship with their environment.

The container complements the contents.

The 19th century neo-classic Neues Museum (1843-55) was designed by Friedrich August Stüler (one of Schinkel’s students). It was severely damaged during the Second World War and reopened in 2009 after radical restoration by David Chipperfield Architects in collaboration with Julian Harrap.

The design focused on repairing and restoring the original volume, respecting the historical structure.  Both the restoration and repair of the existing is driven by the idea that the original structure should be emphasized in its spatial context and original materiality – the new reflects the lost without imitating it.”

The restoration conforms carefully to the Venice Charter, ICMOS (1964), incorporating each of the building’s individual parts, some still largely intact, others substantially damaged. Missing sections have been repaired and supplemented with new parts as required. The original building had many technical innovations such as the early use of cast iron and the effect of the restoration is in many ways an excavation and exposition of building techniques with a resultant strong materiality.

The museum houses Egyptian and pre-historic objects as it did before the war. A few standout objects such as the head of Nefertiti are beautifully presented. However probably because the restored building is so materially and visually overpowering the objects are nearly all housed in standardised glass enclosures with obtrusive black frames.

The use of these heavy cabinets is probably an attempt to instil some internal coherence to the museum but the overall effect is visually chaotic, and the apparently random positioning of the cabinets does not help.

The container overshadows the contents

To most architects the Jüdiches Museum Berlin means its Daniel Libeskind Building but this is actually an extension to the original baroque museum that was closed in 1933. The old museum was remodelled in 1963-69 as the Museum of Berlin and Daniel Libeskind began a third remodelling in 1993 to create the current museum.

The museum was opened in September 2001 but the Libeskind Building had been opened as an empty building for two years before that, when it attracted great attention and 35,000 visitors. In 2007 Libeskind added an elegant but well-mannered glazed courtyard to the Old Museum Building.

The still empty parts of the Libeskind Building are extraordinarily moving particularly the three axes of the building around which it is organised.

A sloping Axis of Emigration leads through a large glazed but unmarked door to an exterior Garden of Exile. This consists of 49 closely packed square concrete blocks topped with willow trees. This is similar in concept to Peter Eisenmann’s 2006 Memorial to the Jews of Europe that has 2,711 closely packed coffin shaped concrete stelae.

An Axis of the Holocaust leads through another unmarked and forbidding door to the Holocaust Tower. This is a chilling, small, unheated tapering chimney of a space dimly lit from high above. However during our visit to an otherwise busy museum we were the only people we saw entering this space.

Finally an Axis of Continuity leads up through successive flights of stairs, to the permanent exhibition spaces. The last flight is a flight to nowhere, leading rather troublingly to a blank wall, odd for an Axis of Continuity or just ironic.

View down the Axis of Continuity

The positioning of the narrow slit windows of the building follow a precise matrix formed by plotting the addresses of Jewish families on a map of pre-war Berlin and joining the points to form what Libeskind called an “irrational and invisible matrix”. The language, form and geometry of the building are based on this matrix.

It is in its relation, or lack of relation, to this matrix that the permanent exhibition falls down. The really fascinating exhibits are displayed in regular accessible museum fashion with display panels that obscure slit windows and generally disrespect the building and its organising matrix.

The contents are rejecting the container.

I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better for the majority of the permanent exhibition to be housed in the Old Museum particularly the pre Holocaust material. This would allow each building to reflect its own content and powerfully reinforce its meaning.

Several other things gave this wartime child a faintly uncomfortable feeling.

The entrance to the Museum is through the original doorway of the Old Museum under the Prussian national coat of arms flanked by allegorical figures of wisdom and justice showing its original function as a court.

The trees have also been allowed to grow in front of and partly obscure the Libeskind Building from the main street and there is a large fence and row of poplar trees between it and the garden beyond the glazed courtyard.

Together with the fairly unsympathetic installation of the museum exhibits there is just a suspicion that the post-modern part of the museum is somehow unloved.


Thurber, J. (1942)
                          Here Lies Miss Groby
                          The New Yorker
                          March 21 1942 p 14
Thurber, J. (1954)
                        Here Lies Miss Groby
                        The Thurber Carnival p 75
                        Penguin Books
ICMOS (1964)
                         IInd International Congress of Architects and
                        Technicians of Historic Monuments

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
This entry was posted in Aesthetics, Architecture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Container for The Thing Contained

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be
    really something which I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and extremely broad for me.
    I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!


  2. Lorenzo Gatti says:

    When I visited Libeskind’s Jüdiches Museum, a few years ago, the “rejection” ran deeper than the conventional display of content: it was full of unused and unusable corners with odd shapes and various instances of water infiltration. In other words, a building that is generally incompatible with its function.


    • Lorenzo, thanks for your comment. I have heard a lot of people say that the empty building was much more moving than its current state, so your comment was interesting. Perhaps feted buildings should be allowed the odd leak though, lots of them seem to have them


  3. Studio Daniel Libeskind’s new home for the Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany, opened to the public on Saturday. Set in the middle of a sprawling decommissioned military complex north of the city’s historic center, the museum is housed in a former arsenal building, which Libeskind has renovated and expanded with a v-shaped shard that rises 100 feet above grade. The glass, concrete, and steel triangle cants up and out from the center of the existing building, appearing to slice through it.


  4. Pingback: The Container for The Thing Contained | Digital Spaces

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