Digging up the potato’s history in Munich’s Das Kartoffel Museum

Our foray into the number one potato museum in Munich was actually pretty great.

Different potatoes in cases. Lots of photographs of lots of different potatoes. Lots of scientific information about lots of different potatoes. Maybe some staff who had taken on the complexion and shape of their wards. That is what I expected from Munich’s Das Kartoffel Museum but that’s not what I got. Instead you get just the right amount of quirkiness to offset the obviously fanatical devotion to the ‘lowly’ spud.

Scary child in Das Kartoffel MuseumWe had spent most of our final afternoon in Munich prowling the never ending spaces of the Deutsches Museum, beside the Isar River, but we realised around 4pm that we really had better make a move and find the potato museum before it shuts at 6pm. I’d enjoyed this enormous museum but it is a serious and traditional learning space. Das Kartoffel Museum, on the other hand, is amusing, whimsical, and ultimately thought-provoking.

The large but basically unassuming L-shaped office block on the corner of Grafinger Straße and Frieden Straße is your target. A blue sign flags up that yes, you aren’t mistaken, Das Kartoffel Museum is inside. Say “Guten Tag” to the man guarding the foyer and he’ll give you an English translation of the main room labels, before ushering you left into the museum.

First thing you’ll probably notice is that there’s nobody here. Das Kartoffel Museum occupies only half a dozen rooms on the ground floor of an office building but it just feels different to have a whole museum to yourself. And that’s coming from someone who works in and has experienced London’s cavernous and echoing Natural History Museum before the hordes batter down the doors every morning.

This museum starts by clearing its throat, hacking up a large globule of historical context for those who don’t know where the potato came from. And that will include a depressing number of people, I’m sure.

Already you can detect hints of the curatorial direction: Early on you are reassured with what you already know as paintings name-drop those adorable explorers and privateers Raleigh and Drake, alongside Mesoamerican representations of the spud and it’s relationship with humanity, as encapsulated in sculptures like this really depressed guy:

Depressed over the size of his potato, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich, Germany

“I just don’t have a large enough oven”

Then you are educated with a dash of taxonomic education on what is and what is not a potato. The exhibits prove that this point is one that took centuries to bed into scholars, let alone commoners. There are some really pretty botanical drawings in this section too.

Poster of many different varieties of potatoes, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich

Then the fun stuff creeps in. Descriptions of the troubles that European authorities had in trying to convince their subjects that this new crop was essential to their well-being mark out the early years of its arrival in the Old World, but it’s the artwork of the potato that raised all the smiles, or freaked me out in equal measure. Obviously the painting of the terrifying child that I’ve inserted at the start of this article is one of the most unholy things I’ve ever seen but here are some more light-hearted images.

If your billiard table doesn't have pockets or balls then use your mouths and potatoes, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich

If your billiard table doesn’t have pockets or balls then use your mouths and potatoes, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich

Apparently this is what my face looks like, according to my wife. Not pleased. Das Kartoffel Museum.

Apparently this is what my face looks like, according to my wife. Not pleased. Das Kartoffel Museum.

A dog with a shovel on his head, and potatoes, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich

A dog with a shovel on his head, with potatoes, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich

Cafe de Flore by Jorg Immendorff, in the potato museum, Munich, Germany

Cafe de Flore by Jorg Immendorff, in the potato museum, Munich, Germany

A mix of staid academic paintings and humourous prints fill most of the rooms but there are a couple of displays which I must also share with you otherwise I would be derelicting my duties.

130 year old potato family portrait in Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich, Germany

130 year old potato family portrait in Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich, Germany

Sexy potatoes on the cover of January 1977's Vital magazine, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich

Sexy potatoes on the cover of January 1977’s Vital magazine, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich. Found in a room at the end of the main exhibits.

Potatoland by Felix Sammel Pfefferkorn, a very patriotic painting of a German potato, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich Germany

Potatoland by Felix Sammel Pfefferkorn, a very patriotic painted homage to the German potato.

By the time I stood in front of Potatoland the museum had really worked hard to get its point across. Modern westerners really don’t put enough thought into what it took to put us in this position of relative food-security that the majority of us enjoy today. Trends come and go but the potato has been instrumental in underpinning much of our growth and prosperity since the seventeenth century. As Das Kartoffel Museum points out, a single year’s potato crop is worth more than all the gold ever mined, so why do we fixate on the shiny yellow crap? The potato supports our teeming millions and does it with almost no thanks. Wait, not thanks, recognition.

Das Kartoffel Museum is a brilliant little jolt of readjustment and manages it with humour and weirdness. Suddenly you discover that its creator Otto Eckart isn’t quite as much of a lunatic as you might have suspected when you first heard about this place. You’ll find yourself exalting the potato too and the ordinary folk who spun it into the delicious cuisines of Germany and Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately for me the potato recipe book in the small shop at the end was in German so I missed out on bringing traditional Bavarian potato cooking home with me, but there are plenty of other trinkets to be had for a couple of Euros. Including potato moisturiser, and small bottles of potato schnapps.

Some directions to Das Kartoffel Museum follow this final horror. Scroll through the terror to find out how best to reach it.

Scary potato museum cuckoo clock, Das Kartoffel Museum, Munich

I don’t even want to imagine what it does every hour. Like the demonic Zoltar machine from the film ‘Big’.

Make your way to the Ostbahnhof (Munich East Train Station). Whichever method of public transport you use you’re likely to poke your head out of the station on its western façade. This isn’t where you need to be. Use the corridor that connects all the platforms, under the rail lines, to walk over to the east side and use the pedestrian crossing just outside. Turn right and you’ll see the office building housing the museum.

Das Kartoffel Museum is free to enter

It is open Tuesday to Thursday by appointment only, but Friday 9am – 6pm, and Saturday 11am – 5pm.

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