Design Panoptikum – where the surreal meets the industrial

Berlin’s most unusual museum is housed in one of the city’s most unassuming buildings. It occupies the ground floor of a grey apartment block on Torstraße, and you could be forgiven for walking right past it, if it wasn’t for the plastic torso in one of its windows. Flashing its organs and a bony smile, it sits between two enormous lamps and is crowned with a metal lampshade. Welcome to the Design Panoptikum, a self-styled ‘surreal museum for industrial objects’.

Vlad Koornev also grins when he introduces himself as the Museum Director. In fact this man, with his piercing blue eyes and thick Russian accent, is the founder of this wonderfully obscure venue, and well aware that neither the museum nor its director are what you might expect. “A regular museum is 100% about the museum,” he says. “This one is 50% about the museum and 50% about the visitor.”

The objects in the museum, all collected by Koornev, include an array of medical instruments, machine parts, and antique metal contraptions. Koornev hasn’t just propped them up or mounted them on the walls, he has combined and reassembled many of them in strange, new ways. Just like the torso in the window, his installations often incorporate lights, mannequins and prosthetics.

The more than 3,000 industrial items in the museum therefore beg for closer inspection – but they deliberately lack plaques or explanations. And try as you like, you probably won’t be able to figure out what most of these things are, which is exactly what Korneev intended when he first set up the museum in 2010.

“I want to spark peoples’ interest in reality and give them more motivation to learn about the things surrounding us”, he explains. That mission started some years ago, when he visited a flea market and noticed that visitors were only interested in designer objects, ignoring everything else that was on sale. “The market was closing, and since nobody wanted to buy it, they were giving away an old breathing machine from the 1940s. This didn’t seem normal to me”. It bothered him that people knew more about designer chairs than a machine that had in all likeliness saved thousands of lives.

The Design Panoptikum is his way of raising awareness; a celebration of objects we often fail to notice or even understand. Like the building that houses them, these inventions look unremarkable at first, but Korneev cherishes them for what they do – and for the stories they hold. He thinks that “real life and real history can be much more interesting than all the operas, plays and movies put together”.

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“Fantasy and art are very important and they should be in our lives, but the balance is all wrong”, he states. Korneev thinks that our society has become so enamoured with fiction that we overlook the humble nuts and bolts that, quite literally, hold our world together. And that is where you come in as a visitor: “Check your head: 50% of the information in there is information from movies”.

But why the rearrangement? Why the plastic heads and limbs? “There are already technical museums, but they are more about the logic of developing such objects. You go inside, read about when they were produced, then you go outside and forget it. But a technical museum with a surreal influence didn’t exist yet.” The arrangement is meant to spark curiosity. He winks: “I also wanted to make the discovery a bit more complicated.”

The aim of a visit here is precisely to experience and uncover the museum’s different layers: “The first is the form, what objects look like. The second one is the visitors’ interpretation. Some people approach them with a technical logic, others with ideas from fantasy or art. Some complain that it is just scraps and wonder why they had to pay an entrance fee”, he jokes.

But there’s a third layer, which is that the objects also prompt philosophical questions, such as: “Why do people in the West pay millions of dollars for equipment to save one life while millions in other parts of the world die because they have nothing to eat?” A trip to the museum is therefore part history lesson, part introspective. That also explains the term Panoptikum, a riff on the infamous circular prisons that allowed for a 360° view. “It is a multifunctional museum, a gallery, a Panoptikum… whatever you want.”

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Save for touching the exhibits, you can do whatever you want in the museum: roam through its rooms, stare at the installations, take photos and ponder the meaning of it all to your heart’s content. The director, who doubles as an informal tour guide, hovers between the rooms and occasionally chimes in with anecdotes, commentary and quiz questions. By the time you step back out onto the daylight of Torstraße, your head will most likely be spinning.

This article first appeared in Slow Travel Berlin on September 20th, 2015.

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