Removed from Berlin by the dark waters of the River Spree, Museum Island is both central and separate from the city. Berlin’s pièce de résistance – its Smithsonian or British Museum – complete with five world class museums covering over 6,000 years of history – testament to this region’s time as capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and Imperial Germany. And the value placed on the study and presentation of civilisation.
More than just a collection of trophy rooms stacked with foreign glories, donated paintings, and liberated items – Museum Island is the product of the enthusiastic investment in the academic study of great empires, their rulers, and subjects.
Better to emulate them, certainly, as the 19th century Prussian ‘Iron Kingdom’ sought prestige and recognition of its own glory – while nursing the social phenomenom of the museum (that owes so much in this sense to the Age of Enlightenment). Now this important part of the city of Berlin is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site – maintained as an urban public forum with outstanding universal value.
The first of the museums on Museum Island to have been completed occupies the southern section of the ensemble – facing the recently reconstructed Stadtschloss (City Palace) across the open ground of the Lustgarten.
Finished in 1830, the Königliches Museum – as it was then known – was designed by legendary master architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, in a Neoclassical style, to house the art and sculpture collection of the Prussian ruling family. Approaching the collection of museums here for the first time, it is as good a starting point as any – as a chronological digestion of the area does allow for a certain lineage of appreciation of the variety of artefacts currently laid out across these museums.
In its present day form, the Altes Museum – as it is now known, focuses on Greek and Roman antiquities, held in the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities) of the Berlin State Museums.
Shortly after the completion of this museum, the ruling Prussian King Frederick William IV – dubbed the ‘Romanticist on the throne’ for his love of the sublime and beauty of nature – ordered the expansion of the island as “a sanctuary for art and science”. He would task Wilhelm von Humboldt, brother to the more illustrious Alexander, with overseeing the arrangement of the collection.
The addition of a second museum further north on the island would see the first renamed – and the new museum simply titled the New Museum (Neues Museum). Now focused chiefly on exhibiting the city’s Egyptian collection (and much more), this is home to the famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
The ‘Mona Lisa of Berlin’, as she is known, is presented behind bulletproof glass in a dedicated room – sequestered from the other exhibits in the museum. She is also the only artefact on Museum Island that guests are prohibited from taking photos of – despite being the star attraction of the Berlin State Museums collection.
That the collections inside the museums of Museum Island include Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Egyptian artefacts and span six thousand years of human artistic endeavour?
Having survived the Second World War, the bust was found by American troops in the German state of Thuringia, where it had been stored for safekeeping. For the entirety of the Cold War period it remained in West Berlin, exhibited from 1967 in the district of Charlottenburg.
Nefertiti would finally return to the Neues Museum as the centrepiece of the permanent collection in 2009.
As with all of the buildings on Museum Island, the Neues Museum sustained substantial damage during the Second World War – mainly from Anglo-American air raids but also the final fighting of the Battle of Berlin. The reconstruction of the museum, by starchitect David Chipperfield, as part of the Museum Island Master Plan meant that elements of the war damage were left preserved inside the structure. Discernible to vistors on close inspection of the interior. The scars of battle are in-fact visible on the facades of all of the museums on the island, in particular the columns of the Altes Museum, facing the Lustgarten.
The Old National Gallery (Alte NationalGalerie) – with its collection of 19th century French Impressionist and German Romantic era paintings – along with the Bode Museum, nestled on the most northern tip of Museum Island and known for its Byzantine art and sculptures – both demanded substantial attention during the Cold War period in order to be reopened. A result of both Second World War damage and the schizophrenic policies of the East German state during the Cold War period when it came to the question of Prussian history.
Cutting through Museum Island and separating the Bode Museum from the rest of the collection is the train line of Berlin’s central Stadtbahn – the inner city section of the Paris-Moscow line. The Bode Museum is on the northern side of the track, while directly south is what has long been considered to be the most popular museum in Germany – the Pergamon Museum.
Famous for its huge Greek temple entrance that has been entirely reconstructed inside the confines of the museum – once one of the terraces of the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Pergamon – located in nowadays Turkey. As much a prized part of the Berlin State Museums collection as the Parthenon Marbles are to the British Museum. Discovered in 1878 by a German expedition to the region, this Hellenistic structure features a gigantic frieze retelling the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods, known as the Gigantomachy.
Due to the unfortunate need to reconstruct the interior of the museum, the altar is now off limits – with the expectation that it will open to the public again in 2023, once a new glass ceiling and climate control system are installed.
While the other museums on Museum Island may be famous for their smaller artefacts and antiquities, the Pergamon Museum is notable for its monumental displays. Not only the Pergamon Altar, but also the Market Gate of Miletus, the Mshatta Facade – and perhaps most impressively, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. Offering visitors the opportunity to not only walk into an ancient Roman market – but also enter Babylon. Without leaving Berlin.
Naturally the Museum Island collection has drawn criticism from the lands of origin of its artefacts along with historical societies frequently calling for restitution. But as an UNESCO World Heritage site, it is worth noting that these museums are maintained now not as German – or Prussian – venues. But for the sake of the entire planet.
Stepping into these museums is to enter various different eras of human history – to chart the rise and fall of ancient civilisations. Embrace the analysis of ancient mythologies. Study the gods of polytheistic societies. Inspect the colourful remnants of our shared past – the wondrous relics that have been left behind as measures of the substantial – but temporary – nature of human greatness.