Panorama: Architecture in Germany

A Remarkable Success Story – the Museum Island in Berlin

The billion-euro renovation of Berlin’s museum island is making good progress. Three of the five historical buildings already stand radiant in their new found glory. But the master plan for the renovation requires a long-term perspective.

The public response exceeded all expectations. In the ten weeks after the Neues Museum re-opened its doors in the middle of October 2009, 250,000 people visited the new ‘residence’ of Nefertiti. The museum will presumably take over as Berlin’s most popular museum; the neighbouring Pergamon museum with its one million visitors every year wearing this crown to date. The success has in the meantime silenced the critics, who branded the billion-euro investment in the museum island as one-sided support for an elitist middle-class art operation.

Museum Island Berlin (Glimpse into the future, 3D model); Copyright: Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation /ART+COM

The master plan

Peter Klaus Schuster, Director General of the National Museums in Berlin until October 2009, is the man responsible for getting the ball rolling for the renovation and new design of the museum island, which was badly damaged in the war and poorly maintained during DDR times, but which has been a World Heritage Site since 1999. He did so with money, lots of money, with courageous decisions where there had been bickering, and with a healthy dose of publicity where secret planning had previously been the name of the game.

But the master plan requires a long-term perspective. The renovation of the Pergamon Museum is set to begin in 2013; the work is to be completed in several phases lasting through to 2028. There isn’t even a target date for the renovation of Schinkel’s Altes Museum. The master plan is said to be more antiquarian than previous plans (because it seeks the greatest possible restoration of the historical architecture), and Schuster seemed to mourn the brilliant genius of Frank O. Gehry’s suggestions for the museum island which had not acceptable to the majority. Instead, the cleverly devised plans more in keeping with principles of the preservation of historical buildings by David Chipperfield and the other architects involved, were given the nod of approval and the kind consent of the public.

Bridge between Classicism and the present day

Left: Draft of the James Simon-Galerie by David Chipperfield Architects, Museum Island Berlin, 2008 (view from the Lustgarten). Copyright: Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation / Imaging Atelier; Right: Alte Nationalgalerie, Museum Island Berlin-Mitte. Copyright: National Museums in Berlin/Foto: F. Friedrich, Berlin

First the classic temple-like structure of the Alte Nationalgalerie re-emerged in all its glory, followed by the Bode Museum in 2006 with its sculpture collection and coin cabinet, and the even grander inauguration of the Neues Museum at the end of 2009.

With the German parliament’s decision to advance 73 million euros of funding, the next renovated building we can look forward to is David Chipperfield’s James Simon-Galerie, named after the sponsor and patron who handed over responsibility for his collection, including the Nefertiti, to the National Museums in Berlin a hundred years ago. As the new central entrance building, with foyer and ticket desk, cloakroom, shop and café, it is conceived as a central reception area for welcoming the expected hoards of visitors before distributing them among the island’s other museums. The James Simon-Galerie facilities include an auditorium, the media centre and temporary exhibition spaces. Chipperfield had changed his plans following scathing criticism of his preliminary draft and sketched a style of architecture that fits in with the existing buildings, and which can build the bridge between the classical elements of the museum island and the present day. The building, with its colonnade reminiscent of the Propylaeum, will open its doors to visitors from 2013 and stimulate their imagination for the imminent cultural experience.

Archaeological Promenade

The response to the part of the master plan concerning the Archaeological Promenade, along which the hoards of visitors were supposed to be guided underground, was characterised primarily by criticism and malice. In four of the five museums the basements will be used as additional exhibition space and connected to each other by underground walkways. The purpose is to offer an “interdisciplinary overview” of the collections. This ‘main circuit’ aims to enable the hurrying bus tourists to tick off the highlights of the museum island, the Pergamon altar, the Ischtar gate and the Nefertiti, in just 40 minutes on their way from Checkpoint Charlie to the Brandenburg Gate. Understandably, people are questioning whether it is really possible to drive two million visitors a year round the circuit or whether access should perhaps be limited after all. “The demand simply exists and we cannot turn our back on it ...” Florian Mausbach, until recently Head of the Federal Building Authority, said hitting the nail on the head: they are simply “constrained by the reality of the situation”.

Visualisation of the colonnade courtyard, Museum Island Berlin; Copyright: Levin Monsigny Landscape Architects

Magnificent architecture park

Admittedly, from the mole’s perspective one will no longer be able to experience the museum island as an ensemble of stand-alone museum architectural works from various eras. Hence, it is worth leaving the buildings when changing from one museum to another, to wander through Friedrich August Stühler’s restored colonnade courtyard from 1841 and to experience the magnificent architecture park. The Berlin landscape architects Levin Monsigny designed the open spaces in the spirit of Friedrich Wilhelm IV and they are now fully open to the public for the first time.

On the other side of the Kupfergraben canal, the administration and research centre of the museum island is gradually emerging. The curators and restorers, researchers and students work in the “museum courtyards”. As well as the museum administration departments, this is also where the libraries, archives and student quarters are housed – all the periphery facilities essential for running world-class museums. This way all the space in the buildings, from the basement to the roof tops, can be used for public operations.

With its spectacularly renovated buildings, the ‘German Louvre’ will significantly increase its visitor numbers – 3 million at the last count – even if it won’t be able to match the 8.5 million people visiting the real Louvre in Paris. But the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has other ambitions. Berlin is focusing on quality instead of masses of visitors. But the question remains: for how long?



The Museumsinsel (Museum Island) in Berlin

The Museumsinsel is located in the centre of Berlin between the river Spree and the Kupfergraben canal. The first building on the island was the Altes Museum that was constructed in 1830 using plans drawn up by the German architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and it became Prussia’s first public museum. This was followed in 1859 by the Neues Museum, in 1876 by the Alte Nationalgalerie, in 1904 by the Bode Museum and in 1930 by the Pergamon Museum. The museums mainly house the archaeological collections and art of the 19th century
In the second World War almost 70 per cent of the museums were destroyed. In 1999 a master plan called the “Museumsinsel” came into effect that called for the restoration of the buildings, as well as a bringing together and restructuring of Germany’s collection that had been divided into East and West after the war. The “Museumsinsel” has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1999.
Falk Jaeger
is a buildings historian and architecture critic in Berlin.

Translation: Marsalie Turner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2010

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