Berlin’s reputation as a manufacturer of ideas has become legendary. And right at the heart of the city, the epochs and gods of ancient Europe, reaching back to the beginnings of our time, still have the power to leave their mark. You can marvel at these in the five buildings of Berlin’s “Museum Island”. King Frederick William himself put his seal onto the site by drawing a series of designs for the buildings. Today, the 200-year-old images on display take on a luminous power.
In 1830, the very first visitor entered the Altes Museum (Old Museum) designed by Karl-Friedrich Schinkel. It was the first art museum open to the public in the whole of Prussia, and marked the starting point for what was to become the renowned “Museum Island” of today. The architect working for Frederick William IV would not have been able to foresee what was to become of his “sanctuary dedicated to art and science”. The idea, however, was groundbreaking, and the crowds that have continued to visit the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) since its complete renovation and subsequent re-opening in 2001, have paved the way for a glorious comeback of the “Museum Island”.
Just by looking at the location of the first museum building we can understand how highly it ranked for its prominent founder: the Altes Museum was placed along the northern edge of the Lustgarten, which literally means the “Garden of Pleasure”, opposite the Royal Palace and embedded between the Cathedral and the Arsenal. This temple of the arts was to play a crucial role at the time: anyone who should so desire was now able to come face to face with and marvel at the most beautiful examples of great works of art. And, quite fittingly, the Latin inscription above the eighteen Ionic monumental columns of the Altes Museum reads: “Frederick William III has dedicated this museum to the study of all antiquity and the liberal arts in 1828”. From then on, other educational and cultural institutions followed. Berlin, the capital of Prussia, flourished, and progressively became the “Athens on the Spree”, as it is often known today. (The Spree refers not to shopping, but the river Spree!)
Altes Museum (Old Museum), Neues Museum (New Museum), Pergamon Museum, Bode Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) – these are all veritable treasure troves all worthy of a visit. It is advisable to allow at least one day for each of the five museums. You will be amazed. In the Bode Museum, you will see the Große Kuppelhalle (Great Domed Hall), which is as spectacular today as it was in the past; the “Basilica”, reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance; and religious images of extraordinary visual effect. Such paintings are always far better seen "live" rather than in reproductions, whether they are 200-year-old paintings and objects depicting images of Christ, reaching back to the beginnings of our times, or the delicate structures and brush strokes of 19th century paintings.
The Numismatic Collection at the Münzkabinett (Coin Cabinet) at the Bode Museum, comprising over 800,000 unique items, is the only one of the collections that has survived the chaos of war intact and that has remained in its original location throughout the ages. Great works of art from faraway Byzantium can also be admired at the Bode Museum. The Bode Museum is named after the director of the museum, Wilhelm Bode, an advocate of “Period Rooms.” The building is attractively located on the waterfront, and one could easily imagine it as the “Maison de Plaisance” or the summer residence of today. The picturesque Monbijou bridges cross the water of the river Spree in front of the museum. The Altes Museum, with its impressive colonnades and a Rotunda inspired by the Roman Pantheon, possesses an imposing character, equalled by the Pergamon Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie.
The Altes Museum was the King's first master stroke. It soon attracted a crowd of visitors so large that plans for an extension had to be drafted in response. In 1841, the historic idea for “Museum Island” was devised – the first "master plan" for the system as it stands today. Frederick William IV himself drew sketches for his “antique temple complex” as he envisaged it, rising up from the sandy grounds of the Mark Brandenburg region. By means of a second master plan drafted in 1999, all of the five buildings have once again been made accessible to the public. Not only is the “Museum Island” ranked as world heritage, but also as one of the most important museum complexes of the world.
The construction timeline is very impressive: 1830, the Altes Museum; 1859, the Neues Museum. Then the Alte Nationalgalerie opened its gates in 1876, while what would become the Bode Museum made its appearance in 1904. Only 100 years after construction began, Berlin’s “Museum Island” was completed by the Pergamon Museum, in 1930. As early as 1880 the museum directors decided on nothing less than state of the art, and nothing less than high art was accepted. And they succeeded. The Altes Museum houses the great Antikensammlung (antique collection), featuring sculpture, weapons and gold artefacts, from the Ancient Greek and Roman periods. The design of the staircase of the Neues Museum is spectacular in its own right. It enhances interiors presenting great examples of Egyptian Art, papyrus collections, as well as the legendary bust of Nefertiti. At the Alte Nationalgalerie, visitors can enjoy sculptures and paintings from the periods of Classicism and Romanticism, right through to works by Caspar David Friedrich and the French Impressionists.
The last of the five buildings takes its name from the famous Pergamon Altar, which has been reconstructed at the museum. The original was built in the 2nd century BC, the high relief on the base of the altar displaying the battle between the Giants and the Olympian Gods. The 21st century brings forth different heroes, and has a new ring to it. But 21st century people haven't lost the capacity to marvel at the riches left to us from the past.
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