While I’ve admittedly relatively little experience with Leipzig, I’m comfortable saying that it never ceases to amaze me. As we get more settled and spend more time walking and generally becoming familiar with our surroundings, more and more starts becoming apparent. This is equally true in grocery and department stores as it is for our favorite streets downtown.
One seemingly paradoxical place that’s simultaneous so imposing in beauty and such a part of the scenery that you don’t even notice it at least half the time. Home to antiques, book, and souvenir shops as well as an excellent museum to Leipzig’s obnoxiously long history. I’m talking about the Altes Rathaus.
The Alte Rathaus has its roots (kind of literally, actually) back in the 14th century when what’s roughly the site of the building became Leipzigs first town hall. The original building is long gone, but what stands today was built in the 16th century, along the original foundation. Interestingly, and something I hope to be able to get a picture of in the near future, the mid 16th century saw a combination of several buildings into the one we know and love. As a result, there’s a “kink” in the foundation visible between the first and second gables.
A few years after the above drawing was made, Hieronymus Lotter began the renovations that would transform the structure into the form we recognize it today.
As with much of Europe, das Alte Rathaus underwent some rapid and unplanned changes during the Second World War.
In 1945, the Leipzig Stadtgeschichtliches Museum (local history museum) opened up, with Das Altes Rathaus Museum following in 1952. It’s a fantastic museum with so much history packed into a space that’s seemingly got no business having so much.
The history of the building itself tells the history of Leipzig. Upon entering you’re immediately met with a huge 19th century diorama of the city, with buttons that light up key locations. Portraits of the city’s notable citizens line the walls, and chairs are set up in anticipation of a meeting’s start. Turn left and you learn the deeper history of the area, turn right and you learn the history of Saxony (our state) and of the building.
To see such an impressive collection of artifacts spanning such a breadth of time and which are likely all very close to home is somewhat bewildering. To go from early pottery and ceremonial cups to grimacing suits of armor, to cannons, stoves, Wagner’s death mask, and 16th century stained glass is almost confusing.
But then you go upstairs (up a lot of stairs) to the “modern” Leipzig exhibit where early printing presses and DDR artifacts are laid out in a chronological time line that spans the length of the building. Here they don’t shy away from the Third Reich and its aftermath. There are Hitler Youth teddy bears and Nazi officers’ uniforms along with resistance movements and anti Hitler graffiti.
Immediately after World War II there was a Soviet occupation in Germany, and we go straight through that period and into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik and through to reunification and how quickly East Germany transformed. It zooms us forward even more to Leipzig’s failed bid to host the 2012 Olympics, as well as the 1000th anniversary of the city, celebrated in 2015 despite it being quite a bit older (1015 is simply the first mention of the city in writing).
Coming from a biological anthropology background though moving into industrial and more recent labor and cultural histories as well, this museum ticked a lot of boxes that may not have originally satisfied me. Since finding my way to more “recent” cultural developments (meaning not looking at evidence for speech capabilities or bipedalism in fossil remains) I’ve found the deep history that can be uncovered by simply scraping the surface to be intoxicating.
Das Altes Rathaus Museum is that writ large, with almost 1400 years of history housed in a 16th century building with 20th century repairs that sits atop a 14th century foundation. I can see myself spending a lot of time here, but Leipzig has 49 locations in its Local History Museum, and so far I believe I’ve been to two of them.