Ursula Pischel is pretty great. She has been working to make Labyrinth Kindermuseum a place that encourages change by teaching kids about important issues like the climate crisis, in fun and engaging ways. We recently got a chance to meet Ursula at this wonderful museum in Berlin’s Wedding district and hear more about her passion for opening kids’ minds to all that they can do in the world. Here is some of that conversation:
Ursula: Labyrinth Kindermuseum was founded here in 1997. The museum’s former founder wanted to open a kid’s museum and was actually commissioned by the Senate. For quite a while in the beginning, everything was pretty small. We were only three people, and exhibitions were either purchased or borrowed. I got involved here in 2001 and from then on, we started to create our own exhibitions. We are now 40 people in total, and everything here has been designed and created by us. Even the costumes have all been sewn by hand.
We always try to find socially relevant issues to present for the children. For example, we previously had an exhibition on the issue of diversity. We’re always trying to be a bit like pioneers. We actually wanted to do the current exhibition about the environment earlier, but then refugees arrived in larger numbers and we felt we had to respond to that. Naturally, we always want to look a little bit ahead and ask questions like, what’s going to happen to movements like Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays For Future” climate strikes? What are things going to be like in two years’ time? Will the people who are out striking in the streets today be in Parliament by then? How do we deal with these students’ demands—will we listen to them?
It’s also very important to us to consider how one might take what they’ve learned about an issue at one of our exhibits and bring that knowledge with them into their everyday life. The climate change issue is going to persist over the next few years at least, so we really want to make a lasting impression on children who visit the museum. Of course, after visiting an exhibition, one still doesn’t know everything about the issue, so we try to consider how teachers can reinforce the exhibition visit in their classes. We organize accompanying projects in schools and daycare centers so that we’re sort of present at all levels of the children’s educational experience, almost like a cultural learning center.
For the climate change issue, we deliberately chose not to portray the earth as a burning ball, which is what many people are already doing. That would be the wrong motivation for children because children need to believe that they can still make a difference. We must approach the issue in a very constructive and positive way. So how do you engage children? The term CO2 still means nothing to them, even if greenhouse gases are one of the focuses of the exhibition. However, children like role-playing games and they like to dress up. So, we thought about engaging them through animals because animals play a very important part in our ecosystem. Every animal has a specific task and role to play, and if the animal can no longer perform this task, our ecosystem quickly becomes imbalanced.
So, we’ve developed a computer game in which 24 animals are presented and divided into different categories. The children can then choose their tasks within the game, have an animal assigned to them, and dress up as the relevant animal to fulfill their task in the ecosystem. There are also different tasks in the different types of ecosystems: forest, meadow, desert, Antarctica. This is how we try to introduce the children to the issue of an ecosystem in a playful and informative way.
”We’re very fortunate that young people are taking to the streets today. It’s very important.”
When you enter the museum, you start in the “Make Waves!” area, which deals with the issue of oceans. It explains how to protect the seas and sea animals, and what happens to plastic in the sea and coral reefs. In the next section, “Animal Aptitude“ the children are assigned different animals as I just described, and they get to explore different types of ecosystems more thoroughly. Next, “Upcycling City” focuses more on humans by exploring issues like where and how humans interfere with the environment, what CO2 is, and what sand theft means. We also have a small workshop area where we offer various recycling workshops.
Finally, in the “Many Small Steps” stairwell, we present people who have already campaigned for the environment as children. There’s a photo of Greta Thunberg there, of course. Some of these children activists are now adults. We’re very fortunate that young people are taking to the streets today. It’s very important. Our visitors are usually between 3 and 12 years of age. Naturally, during their visit, they notice that young people like them are already out there campaigning for the environment. This exhibition will run until August 2021, and so we’ll gradually have to decide on the issue for our next exhibition.
When the museum first opened, the building opposite us was a derelict house where people were still living with blankets hanging in front of the windows. The neighborhood has developed in a positive way since then, though I hope it doesn’t become too gentrified. Unfortunately, here in the Wedding district, creative minds are being driven out. The “Uferhallen”—a large local cultural center with many artists—has just been bought up and now we, as artists, are fighting to keep the site and prevent it from being made into new lofts.
There has always been an extremely high proportion of migrants in Wedding, which is why the educational opportunities here are so important. It’s also a generational issue, and while there are already many educational opportunities here, there could be even more. If children don’t learn German properly today, as children, then when are they going to learn it? One always has to stay on the ball. That’s why we’ve been involved in a project called “Diversity Researchers” for the past three years. It’s a project where “welcome classes“ (classes for refugee kids in which they learn German) meet “regular classes” as they all research diversity together. If we only worked with refugees separately, there would be no proper integration between them and Germans. With “Diversity Researchers,” though, both groups can learn and play with their peers, no matter where they’re from.
For many, many years, we had a program for the neighborhood children called “Neighborhood Sundays.” We gave the kids homemade ID cards and then allowed them to come in here on weekends so they weren’t hanging around on the streets. This was always really well received and there were usually 20-30 children here on weekends.
In addition to the exhibitions and projects we offer through the museum, we have always been happy to offer a type of “further education” series on each exhibition. For these series, we usually work with external partners who are experts in their field and who are genuinely capable of increasing attendees’ awareness of the given issue through a 1-hour workshop. Previously, the content was more focused towards educators and teachers but with this latest exhibition on the environment, we introduced the “Naturally Saturday” workshops for adults. They are open to people from the neighborhood and all over Berlin, as well as anyone who happens to be in the museum at the time of the workshop who wants to participate. This offers adult museum attendees a way to assimilate the content of the exhibition in a different, hopefully lasting way.