From steam train rides to a forum for professionals

Although scientific expertise and passion for the subject were there from the institution’s earliest days, the Berlin Centre for Industrial Heritage (bzi), which was established in 2011, originally came from humble beginnings: the website’s offerings were sparse, the team small and its projects could be counted on one hand. All this has changed fundamentally in the past decade. Today, the bzi is the first port of call when it comes to all things related to “Berlin’s industrial heritage”, offering a wide range of services and events and boasting its own newsletter, a professional website and a well-connected, professionally competent team. Reason enough to conduct a conversation with the scientific duo at the helm of this organisation on the occasion of its tenth birthday, namely Prof. Dr Dorothee Haffner (HTW Berlin) and Prof. Joseph Hoppe (of the Stiftung Technikmuseum Berlin, a non-profit foundation associated with the German Museum of Technology in Berlin - hereinafter referred to by its German title).

Question: Did you imagine that, a decade on, the bzi would be thriving in this way?

Prof. Dr Haffner: Definitely not. Although the bzi got off to a good start thanks to funding from the European Union, it subsequently had to muddle through, its fate depending on one project approval to the next for many years. It’s only since 2020 that we have been the recipients of contractually agreed and, fortunately, adequate permanent funding. This is sufficient to employ a team of thirteen, although not all of them work full time and include student assistants, and to finance our diverse range of activities.

What were the most important milestones?

Prof. Joseph Hoppe: The first milestone was the organisation of the “Berlin Forum for Industrial Heritage and Society” in 2012, a year after the centre’s foundation. This event constituted the first ever meeting of all Berlin’s key actors in the area of industrial heritage. At that time, industrial heritage was still a specialist field with just a few discrete experts, most of whom did not know one another.

The next milestone was the consolidation of these actors within a network, which is now called “Schauplätze der Industriekultur” (“Industrial Heritage Sites”). These days, the Berlin network itself enjoys links to those national and international institutions specialising in industrial heritage. In the beginning, we were the beneficiaries rather than main contributors, but now we are also in the happy position of being able to give a lot back.

Another milestone was the establishment of the umbrella brand “Industriekultur Berlin” (“Industrial Heritage Berlin”). The website, forums, other events and the so-called JuniorRoutes, i.e. the offers for children and adolescents, are all run in the name of this powerful brand. One of the bzi’s key aims is to create an awareness of industrial heritage, even among young children.

Last but not least, the cycle routes leading past highlights of Berlin’s industrial heritage form a final milestone. Generous funding from the Senate Department for Economics, Energy and Public Enterprises has ensures that, by the end of 2022, a total of five cycle tours will have been created.

How would you describe the profile of the bzi today?

Our goal has always been to cast the topic of industrial heritage in a professional light, constituting a centre of excellence in this area, together with the two pillars of HTW Berlin and the Stiftung Technikmuseum. This aim has been achieved. Today, our annual “Berlin Forum for Industrial Heritage and Society”, which we can, in all confidence, call a key event on the professional circuit, is attended by national and international experts. We tackle visionary, innovative topics and are steadily building our profile. 2021 is dedicated to the theme of “industrial heritage and sustainability”, a topic so new that we had some difficulty in filling the panels.

We also conduct research, setting standards in the field of digital industrial archaeology. One example is the project “Gleisdreieck online”. Experts at the bzi have authored numerous publications. We are also involved in the planning of projects in an advisory or moderating capacity. The bzi is often called in when construction projects clash with the protection of historical buildings and monuments. In such cases, we assume a kind of mediator role.

Although we did not anticipate that industrial heritage would be harnessed by tourism so quickly, we were delighted that it resonated within this sector. visitBerlin has become an important partner institution in recent years, and we are thoroughly enjoying the collaboration. The Ruhr District is a good example of an area in which the social significance of industry and industrial heritage and their importance for identities and emotions is clearly played out. Although this is somewhat different in Berlin, it is no less important.

What are you particularly proud of?

Prof. Dr Haffner: I am delighted that the bzi has succeeded in boosting its profile in terms of its content, and is networking all the relevant actors. The connection to teaching has also been successful; many theses on topics related to industrial heritage are now being written at HTW Berlin.

Prof Hoppe: We have established a great team whose qualifications harmonise perfectly. Our employees are experts in the fields of archaeology, history, architecture, regional and urban planning, museum studies, cultural tourism and restoration/excavation technology and product design. Everyone is incredibly motivated and digitally savvy, so the pandemic didn’t really inconvenience us. We were able to continue working seamlessly thanks to their skills and some great support from the Information Technology Centre at HTW Berlin. The cooperation between the bzi and its two supporting institutions, the German Museum of Technology in Berlin and HTW Berlin, is excellent.

Which events are particularly well received?

The children’s and youth programme is a perennial favourite. Before the pandemic broke out, i.e. in 2018 and 2019, we brought around 2,400 Berlin schoolchildren into contact with industrial heritage. The highlight was two steam train rides with about 500 children. Our 100 or so free events are spread across the entire city area and are an integral part of educational curricula, because,  as we know, schools need a complete package. The city tours for primary school pupils and then more specialised programmes for the secondary school pupils in STEM subjects are particularly popular.

Our annual “Forum for Industrial Heritage and Society” is a fixed date in many diaries. Finally, the cycle routes, which received an astonishing media response before the last one was even planned, are another important mainstay.

What else is the bzi up to?

We are planning our own series of publications, with the first two publications appearing in 2021: two popular science brochures on Schöneweide/Treptow-Köpenick and Spandau/Siemensstadt, two prominent Berlin neighbourhoods and regions of industrial heritage.

We also aim to network more closely with industrial heritage actors in Brandenburg. Not only is this politically expected, but also takes account of historic developments. After all, Berlin would have had little to offer in terms of industrial history without its environs.

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