Removed from Berlin by the dark waters of the River Spree, Museum Island is both central and separate from the city. Berlin’s piece de resistance with five world class museums – testament to this region’s time as capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and Imperial Germany.
A collection of trophy rooms stacked with foreign glories, donated paintings, and liberated items. The product of the enthusiastic investment in the academic study of great empires, better to emulate them, as the 19th century Prussian ‘Iron Kingdom’ sought prestige and recognition of its own glory.
The first of these museums to have been completed stands on the southern section of the ensemble – facing the recently reconstructed Stadtschloss (City Palace) and 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 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 approach to 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 famous 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). Focused chiefly on exhibiting the city’s Egyptian collection, this is home to the famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
The ‘Mona Lisa of Berlin’, as she is known, sits behind plate bulletproof glass in a dedicated room – separate from all other exhibits in the museum. She is also the only artefact on the Museum Island that it is prohibitively banned to take photos of – despite being the star attraction of the Berlin State Museums collection.
That the collections inside the museums of Museums Island span six thousand years of human artistic endeavour - including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Egyptian artefacts.
Having survived the Second World War, the bust was found by American forces 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 Charlottenburg. It would finally return to the Neues Museum at 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. Similarly the scars of battle are visible on 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.
Cutting through Museum Island is the train line of Berlin’s central Stadtbahn – and the inner city section of the Paris-Moscow line. To the northern side of the track is the Bodemuseum, and on its southern side, what has long since 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. As much a prized part of the Berlin State Museums collection as the Parthenon Marbles are to the British Museum. This impressive altar was once one of the terraces of the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Pergamon – located in nowadays Turkey. 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 be open to the public again in 2023, once a new glass ceiling and a new 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.
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 institutions are preserved 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. Embracing the study of ancient mythologies, study of the gods of polytheistic societies, recovering remnants of the colourful past. And the wondrous relics that have been left behind as measures of the substantial – but temporary – nature of human greatness.