Healing the Wounds of War Berlin's Neues Museum Opens for Public Inspection

The €233 million reconstruction of the last major ruin on Berlin's Museum Island is finished, and the foundation in charge can now start filling it with art. This weekend Berliners will get to see the hollow inside of the Neues Museum, which has been refurbished by British architect David Chipperfield.


Berlin's Neues Museum, built in 1855 and closed before World War II, has emerged -- at last -- from its historic slumber. The architect handed over the keys on Thursday to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns many of the German capital's most-famous museums and collections and will start months of work to prepare for the museum's grand opening in autumn 2009. For now the building is empty, but this weekend 30,000 people will have a chance to look inside the structure.

"The Neues Museum has finally awoken from its coma," Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said. "This is a great day for culture in the whole world."

The six-year restoration by British architect David Chipperfield is controversial. He hasn't just cleaned the place up; he's also left some war damage and decay untouched. White modern stairways sweep past old bricks pocked by bullets in World War II, original columns still have fire damage, and neo-classical mosaics and pseudo-Egyptian murals still seem to flake away on ceilings and walls.

The original architect, Friedrich August Stüler, was assigned in 1843 to build a "new" museum for Berlin's collection of Egyptian art and other antiquities. It was an artificial monument to Prussia's greatness and the loot from its busy archaeologists. Stüler built magnificent but kitschy Egyptian rooms, a phony Greek temple, even a fake Pompeiian villa. But museums in Berlin were closed by the Nazis to protect the city's collections from Allied bombs, and the Neues Museum was never fully restored by the East Germans. When the Wall fell in 1989, it was a ghostly overgrown ruin.

When the Neues Museum reopens in October, the city's famous Egyptian collection, evacuated from the building before the war, will be returned to its original home for the first time since 1939. It includes one of Berlin's most famous artifacts, the bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Chipperfield's office also has a commission to restore other parts of the Museum Island, the historic cluster of neoclassical Prussian buildings at the heart of Berlin that are now designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Public debate and outcry over his ideas have slowed the projects. But he hasn't complained: Chipperfield likes to point out that people in his own country seem to care less about their public buildings than his German critics do. The Berlin Historical Society still argues on its Web site that he should have opted for a faithful restoration of Stüler's old design instead of a modern compromise between old and new. But the long debate has refined Chipperfield's ideas into a graceful series of halls that reveal the histories of the museum, Berlin and Germany itself. "The result is spectacular," writes Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic for the Financial Times. "There is a rare architectural literacy here."

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