Photo Gallery: Is There Hope for Berlin's Museums?

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Haphazard and Uninspired Why Berlin Is World's Most Boring Museum City

As far as major cities go, few other places are in possession of so many treasures that are so poorly exhibited as Berlin. It's as though cultural institutions here go out of their way to keep people from visiting.

Berlin can be a lonely place, but that's not always a bad thing. There are locations in the city, central and accessible to everyone, that are so quiet and empty they would lend themselves well to meditation. The only downside is that you have to pay admission.

For instance, take the city's Museum of Decorative Arts inside the Kulturforum complex near Potsdamer Platz. It's a recent Tuesday afternoon, shortly before 3 p.m., the doors open into a large, gymnasium-sized lobby. Exactly two people can be seen: the woman at the cash register printing visitors' tickets and a colleague next to her scanning them. Visitors are asked to put their handbags into one of the lockers that covered an entire wall. All but one are available.

On the museum's main floor, historical clothing is displayed in glass vitrines -- fashion, textiles, things that are actually quite interesting. Currently, London's Victoria and Albert Museum is running an exhibition of eccentric dresses designed by the late Alexander McQueen. The show is completely sold out, but would-be visitors still have a chance each morning to get their hands on one of 200 tickets being offered at 10 a.m. Other museums like the British Museum in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Louvre in Paris, attract huge crowds even on a Tuesday afternoon. In those cities, viewing art is a communal experience. At times, the museums even feel too full.

Eerily Empty

But at the Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts, enjoying art seems to mean subjecting visitors to long, dark corridors that are eerily empty. Walking around corners can be a startling experience for all parties involved.

The building is part of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which also runs all the museums at the Kulturforum as well as the five temple-like structures on Berlin's UNESCO World Heritage-listed Museum Island. Counting the Berggruen Museum in western Berlin, with its large collection of Picassos, the foundation has 20 different locations in the city and incredible collections at its disposal. It boasts millions of artifacts from around the world that show huge swaths of human history. That fact, plus the large number of international artists who have made Berlin their home and the sheer number of galleries, may explain why the German capital city has come to be known as a metropolis of art.

That reputation, however, is a misconception. The city is undeniably home to diverse, valuable and unique museum collections, but they aren't helping the city as much as they should be.

In interviews, Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, and Michael Eissenhauer, the general director of the many museums belonging to the foundation, get defensive. They claim the museums have been in a state of restructuring for some years now with ongoing construction work, but they also concede that marketing efforts could be improved. Generally, both seem satisfied with the situation. The resonance with colleagues in other cities and visitors to the museums is overwhelmingly positive, they say. Which visitors they are referring to exactly is unclear.

Some inside the foundation admit that places like the Museum of Decorative Arts actually do present a problem. The museum just reopened in late 2014 after a refurbishing that was also intended to make it more attractive. Unfortunately, it didn't change the museum as radically as it could have -- it still looks like an architectural relic from the 1980s.

At the same time, there are far uglier places in Berlin than the Museum of Decorative Arts. In fact, the ugliest is right next door, connected by a hallway. It's the Gemäldegalerie, or picture gallery, which boasts one of the world's premier collections of pre-18th century European paintings. Purpose-built in the 1990s, it is packed with masterpieces from Botticelli, Dürer, Tizian, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. These were painters who knew how to create an enchanting atmosphere and stir up some excitement -- something the foundation's staff has been unable to replicate. The collection is one of the five or six most important in the world, as the museum's staffers are never too shy to note, but of course they would like to see more visitors. Hopes are high for a major Boticelli exhibition planned here in the autumn.

On this particular day, a woman stands in front of many empty hangers in the giant coat room on the lower level of the museum -- but at least some coats are hanging there.

Then it's off to the center of the building. There are no works on display, just lots of sharp-edged pillars and round overhead lighting, basically the worst aspects of post-modernism. Somewhere a metal door shuts loudly. Further back in one of the galleries, a museum docent stands in front of a painting by Raffael. Near him are a few students who don't bother talking quietly -- there's not really anyone for them to disturb, anyway. Over an area of about a few thousand square meters, there are perhaps 15 or 20 other visitors. Nothing happens, not even in the nearby spaces for special exhibitions, where twilight portraits of Kate Moss and other glamorous images by fashion photographer Mario Testino are on display. One elderly gentlemen walks out, another remains inside.

Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, a museum housed in a former train station located near the city's Central Station, is actually quite easy to get to. It also happens to be home to a good deal of contemporary art. The halls at the rear of the museum, which are reserved for the well-regarded Flick Collection, exhibit small and large objects by Dieter Roth, a deceased Swiss artist who was part of the Fluxus generation. These works are subtle, but they also have a vital, almost exuberant quality to them.

Beautiful Music, But No Listeners

In the corner of one giant room with a particularly expansive Roth sculpture, a fatigued guard leans on a table. He's alone in the room. A player piano is mounted to the wall, playing its music. In a way, it's an allegory for all the museums in Berlin: The music is beautiful, but is anyone listening?

The interview with Parzinger and Eissenhauer takes place in the Alte Nationalgalerie, or Old National Gallery. In May, the exhibition "Impressionism - Expressionism" opened here. There actually is a throng in the museum, with a line already forming outside the building. Parzinger and Eissenhauer are asked to answer why Berlin, with its massive cultural collections, is the most boring museum city in the Western world? Why does it lack the radiance of other cities?

The two men do admit that visitor numbers are diminishing. They blame remodeling that has forced closures or partial closures at key museums for the decline. Last year, 3.9 million guests visited all of the foundation's numerous museums combined. A year earlier it had been 4 million; at some point in the past decade, the number hit 5 million.

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum alone attracts more than 2 million visitors a year. The same goes for the Prado in Madrid. In London, the British Museum draws 6.7 million. Paris' Louvre can count on more than 9 million visitors per year. In Berlin, not a single museum is among the world's 20 most-visited. In Berlin it's often not even a question of numbers -- it's one of whether you encounter other people in the museums at all.

The Altes Museum, with its archeological collection, is located at the beginning of Museum Island, the most prominent site of all. A giant green space is located at the base of a flight of stairs that leads to the massive boulevard that stretches from Alexanderplatz at one end to the Brandenburg Gate at the other. Across the street, Berlin's former imperial Stadtschloss palace is currently being rebuilt. Even though there is no refurbishing underway at the Altes Museum, parts of it are closed during the day. The museum officially opens at 10 a.m., but visitors have to wait an hour before being able to access anything except the downstairs section. An employee at the information desk attributes the disparate opening hours to cost-cutting measures and says they're likely to be "lasting."

A Dearth of Blockbusters

During this particular visit, it seems as if an important classicist museum building, located in the heart of Berlin on the Spree River and home to a breathtaking collection of artifacts from the antiquity, is failing to attract enough people.

The same holds true for the Bode Museum, which is also located on the Museum Island and underwent a €150 million ($163 million) renovation a few years ago. Recently, the museum's upper and lower floors have only been opening up after 11 a.m. The museum's Gobelins tapestry room is open a mere two days a week. Museum staff say they have been required to undertake serious belt-tightening. The museums may be saving money, but the cost has been fewer visitors.

Foundation President Parzinger says it's a question of how one views the role of museums. That is indeed the question. Of course there is more going on in museums where there is movement, where special exhibitions are presented in addition to the permanent collections.

But there just haven't been that many spectacular exhibitions in the foundation's museums in recent years. Many recall the "MoMA in Berlin" exhibition, a blockbuster featuring the New York institution's "Best Of" works. The whole thing felt a little bit cobbled together at the time, but locals still remember it 11 years later. The 2004 show drew 1.2 million visitors.

Another exhibition this decade celebrating the 100th year of the discovery of the Nefertiti bust, one of the most important items in the foundation's collections, also drew large crowds. Some 600,000 visited the show. But will that suffice for the coming years? And did the show have any greater impact on drawing people to the museums?

During one recent visit to the Egyptian Museum on Museum Island, only three people could be found standing in front of the glass case that holds the bust of the Egyptian queen. With 180,000 visitors, the biggest exhibition in the city of the past year was a show about the Vikings.

By contrast, the "Late Rembrandt" exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, a city with a population one quarter the size of Berlin's, recently went out with a bang. More than half a million people visited the exhibition. Granted, it's all but impossible to go wrong with an art history icon like Rembrandt, but the curators rediscovered the painter in a very intelligent way. It also didn't hurt that the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum for modern art are located very close nearby. All profit from each other and, taken together, attract more than 4 million guests a year.

Mutual Paralysis

In Frankfurt, a single museum director is responsible for three institutions: the Städel Museum, the small Liebighaus sculpture museum and the Schirn Kunsthalle exhibition space. The most visited exhibition in the history of the Städel Museum, "Monet and the Birth of Impressionism," closed at the end of June after drawing 400,000 visitors. There may not have been anything experimental about it, but the entire city's art scene nonetheless profits from such successes. Berlin's museums on the other hand all seem to be in a state of mutual paralysis. But why? There are other places for viewing art in the German capital that would profit from greater dynamism on the part of the foundation and its state museums in Berlin.

Officials at Berlin's top museums certainly don't appear to be lacking any self-confidence. That includes the foundation's 11 directors, diverse deputies and heads of the collections. It is a self-affirming apparatus -- and as of two weeks ago, more so than ever before. In late June the announcement came that Eissenhauer will assume a double role on August 1 as the general director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the director of three museums, including the Gemäldegalerie. A visit to one of the state museums often feels more like a trip to a government agency than a place where art is viewed with any passion.

But it's obviously possible to fill a museum with life. That involves having good websites, event calendars and the all the marketing aspects the Berliners don't seem to have under control. Most importantly, you have to make visitors feel they are a part of something that is bigger, more beautiful, deeper and perhaps more important than their everyday lives.

Last year, the British Museum mounted a relatively small show: "Germany. Memories of a Nation." In conjunction with the exhibition, Neil MacGregor, the head of the British Museum, produced a 30-part radio series for the BBC, a public history lesson of sorts -- smart, lively and at times almost touching. The show, comprised mostly of historical objects, was celebrated around the world. It was also a risk for MacGregor, who basically looked back at German cultural history -- at people like Albrecht Dürer, Martin Luther and Immanuel Kant -- as well as the dark decades of the 20th century -- and pleaded with visitors to re-examine how they think about the country.

It prompted some to ask why such a successful, enlightening exhibition about Germany couldn't have been mounted in Berlin. Parzinger argues it would be difficult for a show like that to function in Germany because it would take on a different meaning here given that the country has a different culture of remembrance. But are the Berliners being overly cautious? Parzinger argues that museum staff are doing their homework. He points to a "very good" exhibition about Russian-German relations that the museums organized in 2012. He concedes, however, that media interest in the show wasn't as great as it had been for the London exhibition.

Museums Fail to See Problems

Part of the issue may be that the museums are failing to see the problem. For all the talk of master plans in Berlin, things often come across as haphazard and uninspired.

When it comes to mounting exhibitions, MacGregor, 69, a Scotsman, is a curatorial genius. His next job is to help rescue the German capital. He will serve as the founding director of the so-called Humboldt Forum in Berlin's City Palace, which is currently being rebuilt and will be home to the city's ethnological collections. These include remnants of the colonial era that people in Germany often like to play down -- artifacts from Africa that were either extorted, stolen or fraudulently obtained. The collection even includes shrunken heads from South America.

It must be possible to present the collections in ways that are at the same time political, reflective, open-minded, democratic and anti-colonial. Once the initial euphoria settles, however, MacGregor will have to come up with a lot of ideas in order to keep the coat room full.

Once he leaves the British Museum at the end of the year, MacGregor has other plans. He wants to continue developing television shows for the BBC and he will be in charge of the revamping of a "presentation of world cultures" in Mumbai. In other words, one MacGregor will be doing three jobs. The fact of the matter is that Berlin probably needs three MacGregors, rather than one-third of him, in order to make this somewhat surreal project make sense.

Not everything that goes on in other countries is welcome. Great Britain is cutting its culture budget, not to mention Spain. In Berlin, apparently, money isn't the biggest problem. Construction at the new central lobby of the Museum Island will take longer than expected, and at €134 million will cost twice as much as originally proposed.

Pandering to Patrons

The unsuccessful expansion of the Berggruen Museum, which is also run by the foundation, is also worthy of mention. The annex building was closed only several months after its opening in 2013 due to faulty construction and has yet to be reopened. It is somewhat more alarming that the expansion was paid for with federal funds, because the family of the dead collector and museum founder Heinz Berggruen, the father of well-known investor Nicolas Berggruen, had promised to loan it additional artworks. Some works were on loan from the family for just one year, which is brief. That way pieces can be spontaneously removed at will when needed in order to sell them. The senior Berggruen occasionally handled things the same way. To use the industry jargon, the museum becomes a showroom.

But back to the issue of the Kulturforum. When exiting the Museum of Decorative Arts, one sees the backside of a bistro, an expanse of cement, weeds and a handful of beverage crates. It could be a scene from the Eastern Bloc, when the Communists were still in power.

To the right lies Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie building; to the left, the Berlin Philharmonic. Located in-between, as if forgotten, is an old church and a larger piece of fallow land. At the wishes of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the state culture ministry, this piece of land on the six-lane Potsdamer Strasse is slated to be the site of a museum for modern art in the near future. The money for the new construction, €200 million, has already been budgeted. Compared to the €590 million being spent on the Humboldt Forum, that price tag sounds moderate. But why does Berlin need more museums, when the old ones are already so bland and empty? Shouldn't people first try to get a grip on the ones they already own?

Construction sites, renovations, new openings, re-openings -- these kinds of things are popular in the German capital. But what comes next? The modern art museum is being built with the wishes of a few collectors in mind. These patrons want their already donated works and future gifts to be exhibited appropriately.

It's enough to leave one wishing that Berlin would take its visitors as seriously as it does its collectors.