In a storage unit beneath the tracks of Berlin’s transit system sits an unexpected collection of objects that reveal the city’s urban history—if you know how to read them. Piled on top of one another like a sculptural rendering of a concrete poem is a mountain of three-dimensional letterforms: this is the collection of the Buchstabenmuseum (meaning “Lettermuseum”), the first museum in the world to preserve and display letters from public spaces and provide information about their origin and construction.

The museum was founded 11 years ago by graphic designer Barbara Dechant, who was bit by the letter-collecting bug after she first rescued a car radio sign reading “AUTORADIO” from the dumpster; thanks to her efforts, hundreds of letters that would have ended up in scrap heaps have been salvaged and preserved. Whether made with neon, metal, card, or wood, when Decant sniffs out a lead (like news that a storefront is closing down and its signage is being left to weather), her committed team of volunteers set out in their van to remove and rescue whatever 3D letters hang lonely and abandoned on a building’s façade.

For now the museum is making a home in the space under a bridge in the former West Berlin’s Hanasviertel, though as a non-profit, passion project, the location of Buchstabenmuseum changes regularly, as finding and securing funding is a continual struggle for Dechant.

“But this new place is really perfect for us,” she says. “It’s in a very well-known housing development that attracts a target group of our guests and visitors.” Walking through the development and up to the bright red door of the Buchstabenmuseum is to embark on a fantastic architectural adventure: constructed as part of the 1957 International Building Exhibition, the Interbau consists of 48 low- and high-rise blocks designed by Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Ego Eiermann, and more. The Berlin letters belonging to Dechant’s collection are an underappreciated part of the city’s visual history, so it makes sense that it would be located in area of distinct design prestige. For the Interbau’s 60th anniversary next year, the museum is planning to have the space open and prepared for the public.

“It’s interesting to see how Berlin has changed and continues to change by looking at the letters,” muses Dechant. “Today, the letterforms outside buildings are mostly the same logos,” she gestures to the glowing yellow humps of a McDonald’s “M” as evidence. “In former times, you didn’t have the logo of a shop over the door, but the word of the thing that they sell. So you’d have ‘Flowers,’ or ‘Bread’. Today you have the brand.”

Dechant moves a few letters to uncover a fluorescent neon reading “Fruchtaus” in cursive script, which translates quite simply to Fruit House. “This was on top of a tiny house, like a fairy tale, in front of an S-Bahn station in Berlin,” she remembers. Contextualizing the history of the letterforms is important to the Buchstabenmuseum (each sign includes information about the date it was built, who created it, and where it was hung), but Dechant’s primary fascination has always been with the physical letterforms themselves, which she sees as evocative craft objects.

“From the start, my personal feeling was always ‘I really like these shapes.’ It’s interesting to see them without the context or knowing the content. When you go to Japan for example, you see the shape of the letter without understanding what it means—you appreciate it as form.”

Over the years, one thing that has become clear to Dechant is that every visitor has a different connection to the letters. Some like them because they want to have them in their living room. For others, the letters conjure old memories and emotions. For me, I see the changes in a continually evolving and restless cityscape; I read in them the political ideologies that have battled against one another on top of Berlin’s façades for decades, finding shape in the ornamental flair of sans or the straight edges of sans serif.

“We also get many type designers visiting,” Dechant continues. “They spot a special little curve in a letter and get excited, often because they see typefaces chosen before you had a computer. A lot of these are handmade and so are the actual handwriting of someone.”

Curving around a metal frame is a sign from the ’50s that illustrates Dechant’s point—a decorative, hand-written letterform that once adorned a cinema and grandly reads “Film Palast.” Usually this is written as one word, but on this sign it’s split in two, the “M” and “P” beautifully in dialogue with one another like a partial ligature. It lies on the ground next to an inconspicuous set of letters spelling “SERVUS” from a gala event written in Erik Spiekermann’s FF Meta that’s been laser cut out of wood.

Buchstabenmuseum in Berlin. 22.7.2016.
Buchstabenmuseum in Berlin, photo by Djamila Grossman

The only lettering that currently hangs on the wall is a florid sign reading “Zierfische” (meaning “various fish”). It’s the stand out star of the collection, a great neon that explodes in blinking bubbles and hand-drawn fish. “We interviewed the designer of the lettering and this really is his handwriting,” says Dechant. “A student even made a font from the sign called Zierfische, and you can buy it.”

“It’s really not necessary to speak German to appreciate these letters,” Dechant stresses once again. “We want to make programs and guided tours for children and people who can’t read—these objects are a great way to learn the alphabet. Right now there are a lot of refugees in the country who can’t read German, so we see the collection as a fun way to get in contact with a new language and culture.”

The Buchstabenmuseum is an A-Z of urban history, a database of typographic trends that have defined and refined the face of Berlin, and its continually updating and evolving high streets. But it’s also a place that celebrates the overlooked. “We know all these German and European craftspeople who are so proud when they come here to see their work. The people who build these letters, they’ve always been in the background,” says Dechant. “Here, their work is center stage.”