Berlin’s Museumsinsel (Museum Island) is a unique collection of five museums built on a small island in Berlin’s River Spree between 1824 and 1930. “A cultural and architectural monument of great significance it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1999” (Berlin.de 2013).
King Frederick Wilhelm IV (1840-1861) masterminded the development and the construction of the five-museum complex due to his “romantic vision of a refuge of the arts and sciences similar to the Forum of ancient Rome” (Berlin.de 2013). The complex is distinguished for a few reasons “Firstly they represent what is considered the ‘evolution of modern museum design.’ The point made is that most of Europe’s great museums were, in fact, originally royal palaces that in time were converted into museums. The structures on Museum Island, however, were believed to be the first specifically designed to house, originally at least, the private collections of the Prussian royal family which is the second of its unique characteristics” (Sklarewitz, 2013).
UNESCO defined it “an outstanding example of the Enlightenment vision of making art publicly accessible, given material form in a central urban setting” (Berlin.de 2013).
The Five museums that comprise Berlin’s famous Museum Island are:
- The first museum to be built on the Island and the oldest in Germany was the Altes Museum in 1830 completed on the orders of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s (one of the greatest artists in Berlin) that resulted in a neoclassical masterpiece. The building was designed to resemble a Greek Corinthian Temple. Today it houses ancient Greek and Roman artifacts although it was initially built to house treasures of the royal family.
- Following on from Schnikel’s 1830’s Altes Museum, Friedrich Wilhelm IV commissioned the construction of the Neues Museum (New Museum) of which was finished in 1859 according to plans by Friedrich August Stüler. Destroyed in World War II, it was rebuilt under the direction of David Chipperfield for the Egyptian Museum of Berlin and re-opened in 2009. It houses a collection of prehistoric, early history and Egyptian works of Art.
- The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) completed in 1876, built by Johann Heinrich Strack, Friedrich August Stüler’s successor, to host a collection of 19th century German and European sculptures and paintings donated by banker Joachim H. W. Wagener of which is the largest collection in Germany. “It reopened in 2001, with works from Monet, Manet, Renoir and Caspar David Friedrich” (Berlin.de 2013). .
- The Bode Museum on the island’s northern tip opened in 1904 and was originally called the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum for European Renaaissance art. It was named after its first director Wilhelm von Bode in 1956 (Berlin.de 2013). . It is renowned for its large collection of sculptures, one of the world’s largest numismatic collections, Byzantine Art and a selection of paintings from the Gemäldegalerie. It reopened in 2006 after a five and a half years renovation.
- The most well known of the complex is Alfred Mussel’s Pergamon Museum, the final museum of the complex, constructed in 1930. “It was built following the need for additional exhibit space to house the artefacts from the 19th century excavations of German archeologists in Pergamon and Asia Minor at a time when Heinrich Schliemann found Priam’s treasure” (Berlin.de 2013). It contains a collection of Greek and Babylonian antiques that include the reconstructed of immense and historically significant buildings such as the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
“Berlin’s own Acropolis of the arts is considered unique because it illustrates the evolution of modern museum design over the course of the 20th century and its collections span six thousand years of human artistic endeavour” (Berlin.de 2013).
The museums has had a extensive history with the fate of Berlin during World War II and its division during the Cold War that followed, of which resulted in the building barely surviving and the need for a 15-year renovation plan. “Anticipating Allied bombings at the start of World War II, German authorities removed most of the art collections. In the violent years that followed, some works were looted, other lost and some ended up in Moscow” (Sklarewitz, 2013). The building themselves were extensively damaged by the aerial attacks from WWII and from the Russian assaults on Berlin itself that ended WWII in Europe. In addition, with the Museum Island being located behind the Berlin wall in the Communist Soviet union East during the divide of Berlin after the war, they suffered considerable neglect as well as the tremendous amount of damage. Today the building still show the battle scars of a divided city with shrapnel and bullet marks within its walls. “The architect didn’t want to cover all of them over, to remind us of our dark past,” (Sklarewitz, 2013).
By Rebecca Holland
Berlin.de 2013 Museumsinsel
Sklarewitz, N, 2013 Museumsinsel