BERLIN — Just as a visitor to New York might be disappointed to find a high-end clothing store where the notorious nightclub CBGB once stood, or wonder why it’s so hard to get a cheap room at the Chelsea Hotel, visitors to Berlin today will find that things have changed since the city’s hip heyday — the years immediately after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
What sets Berlin apart from New York (and from virtually all big cities in Europe) is how rapid and complete that change has been.
In the 28 years since the city’s unification, the wall has almost completely disappeared and large areas have been rebuilt. In the process, the creative chaos has been relegated to the fringes and outskirts — occupied houses have been turned into condos and once-hip anything-goes neighborhoods have become gentrified. What was once the party archive in the East German state is now a members-only club, Soho House.
“The time of great freedom and unlimited opportunities in Berlin just after the fall of the wall is becoming more and more of a myth because Berlin has changed so dramatically,” said Jürgen Danyel of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.
The city has changed and moved on. But to a certain extent, it relies on the legend of a chaotic, dirty and incredibly creative center. Many of the millions of visitors who come to Berlin each year are drawn by that image.
“Nineties Berlin” a multimedia exhibition in the city center, seems to have some of these visitors in mind. The show, which opened in August at the Alte Münze, a former mint, features 12 segments of the wall, 140 Kalashnikovs and an upside-down, ceiling-mounted scale model of the Loveparade, the huge annual street party that for many defined the era. Floating above the heads of the visitors in a mirrored room, the model gives an idea of the masses that turned out for the event in 2001.
Filmed testimony, sound, pictures and video footage cover city life, politics, music and art from 1989 to the early 2000s. A video collage projected onto a 3,000-square-foot wraparound screen acts as a visual and auditory introduction to the decade and the show. Filmed interviews with contemporary witnesses help explain the immensity of the change and the singularity of the moment. Images of posters and magazine covers, as well as the rhythmic beat of techno music diffuse nostalgia.
The exhibition was organized by the people behind the D.D.R. museum, which gives visitors a taste of what life was like in East Germany. Now in its 12th year, it attracts more than half a million visitors each year. While the D.D.R. museum prides itself on the many artifacts visitors can touch, feel and experience, “Nineties Berlin” is sparser, more stylish and more interested in transmitting ideas and feelings.
“It’s more the case of explaining a concept, rather than showing objects,” Quirin Graf Adelmann von Adelmannsfelden, one of the exhibition’s four directors and a director of the D.D.R. museum, said of the new exhibition. He said that “Nineties Berlin” aims to explain playfully how Berlin came to be the city it is now. “We have to get people in the door,” Mr. Adelmann von Adelmannsfelden said, “before we can explain some of the complexities of the era.”
Later this year, the museum will add a 250-foot wall-mounted banner of explainers that will provide additional context to the exhibition’s displays. The banner will be creased, to resemble the city maps tourists at the time might have used.
Since many visitors — even ones from Germany — are unfamiliar with much of the history of the period, providing a historical context was a challenge, the curators said.
Visitors are guided through the exhibition by a chat bot viewed on their smartphones, a technology that minimized the need for exhibit descriptions, but that has the unintended disadvantage of limiting the visitor’s feeling of being transported into the past. (The sight of fellow visitors glaring at their screens makes getting lost in the pre-personal-tech world of the decade difficult.)
Although it has been popular with visitors, “Nineties Berlin” is not without its critics. The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, criticized it not only because pieces of the wall are available for purchase in the gift store — a serious affront to Berlin cool — but also because the show’s narrative touched on topics generally, without giving real and interesting examples beyond the places and events already mythologized by general public.
The exhibition is both part of the process of mythologizing the early ’90s and it benefits from doing so, said Dr. Danyel, the historian. “It targets things already in the consciousness of tourists,” he added.
And while modern Berlin has changed since the ’90s, some things remain the same.
In an echo of the productive chaos that ruled during the mythical decade, city officials contacted the show’s organizers in the first month of its run. Instead of closing at the beginning of 2019 to let a permanent tenant in as had been agreed, the exhibition can now stay in the Alte Münze until at least 2022.
“It’s exactly like in the ’90s,” said Matthias Kaminsky, the show’s creative director. “First you did something, and then you waited for approval afterward.”