Museum Island A Cultural Jewel Reawakens in Berlin

This week, Berlin adds a grand new highlight to its assortment of cultural attractions -- the newly renovated Bode Museum on the city's Museum Island. The opening serves as a reminder that Berlin has the potential to become Europe's cultural capital -- if it chooses to accept the challenge.

By Joachim Kronsbein and

The most precious highlight of Germany's cultural history, a unique ensemble of artistic attractions, is located right in the middle of Berlin's Spree River. The Museuminsel (or Museum Island), a kind of Prussian arcadia, consists of five museums, and each of them is a temple to high culture -- a stone monument to the bourgeois utopia of a life dedicated to the cultivation of beauty, goodness and truth. Museuminsel preserved the ideals of the educated bourgeoisie in the context of a warlike reality dominated by the military power of the state.

The Museuminsel, where the five museums rise majestically skyward, is located in the city's historical center, but the temples of culture also stand apart as a kind of special district. The museums used to be within viewing distance of the residence of the royal Hohenzollern family. They still would be if Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the Communist Party of East Germany (SED), hadn't ordered the residence to be demolished in 1950. It was the kings of the Hohenzollern family, known for their interest in art, who ordered the splendid museums to be built.

The Museuminsel has long been the most important asset of Berlin's tourism business, envied by other countries and admired by about 2 million visitors every year.

Prussia's prime exponent of neoclassical architecture, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, got things started 175 years ago by building the Altes Museum (Old Museum). Then the Neues Museum (New Museum) was built in 1855, followed by the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) in 1876 and the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in 1904. The Weimar Republic made a final addition in 1930, in the form of the Pergamon Museum.

The most impressive of the five treasure troves reopened on Tuesday after six years of construction work and renovation costs that totalled about €160 million ($200 million). The refurbished Bode Museum, formerly known as the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, is a kind of architectural steamboat on the northwestern bank of the island. With its reopening, visitors are finally able to admire its treasures again -- a collection of Byzantine art, sculpture, a coin cabinet and some 150 paintings owned by the German state.

The Museum Island and the Culture Forum are two of the main attractions for art lovers visiting Berlin.

The Museum Island and the Culture Forum are two of the main attractions for art lovers visiting Berlin.

The Museuminsel won't be restored to its complete splendor until work on the Neues and Pergamon museums is completed. There are plans to connect the buildings with an underground promenade and to construct a new building as a reception area for the masses of visitors. The massive project is slated for completion at some point in 2014, but no one dares to predict exactly when.

Berlin's cultural legacy

Still, the Museuminsel is already a place today where the cultural legacy of Berlin and Prussia blossom. It features a carefully cultivated arsenal of items from throughout history -- from the bust of Hittite Queen Nertiti, to the Pergamon Altar to the works of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

But the almost encyclopedic overview of art history that the Museuminsel sets out to present ends abruptly at the end of the 19th century. There is literally no room for contemporary art on the banks of the Spree: The works of German painter Adolph von Menzel are as far as the overview goes. This is in itself an irony of art history.

After all, Berlin was always "one of the capitals of modernism," as Peter-Klaus Schuster, the 63-year-old general director of the city's state museums says. The city was a home both to impressionists such as Max Liebermann and to expressionists such as Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner -- until the Nazis scorned their art and persecuted them.

Berlin also plays an important role in today's art business. Berlin's city center, the district known as Mitte, is home to a lively network of galleries. Few other European cities are inhabited by as many artists, both German and non-German. Young people's enthusiasm for the German capital is enormous.

But the city still hasn't properly understood what great opportunities present itself in this situation. Today, Berlin is like a great apartment shared by young artists. Tomorrow, it could be a unique laboratory for the artistic avant-garde.

Also, here it is the art market -- and not public institutions such as the museums on the Spree -- that determines what is considered worth exhibiting and what isn't. Indeed, Berlin has few state museums devoted to the work of contemporary artists. One of them is the city's Museum for Contemporary Art at the Hamburger Bahnhof, an out-of-use train station in the city center. The museum is an offshoot of the Nationalgalerie (National Gallery) -- and its development is hampered by the slow-moving bureaucracy of the Foundation of Prussia's Cultural Heritage, which operates the city's state museums. The Hamburger Bahnhof causes a stir every time it acquires a private collection, as evidenced when it purchased the art collection of German industrialist Friedrich Christian Flick in 2004. The Flick collection was politically and culturally controversial because of the family's support of the Nazi regime and the use of forced labor in Flick factories during the war. The collection also turned out to be more costly for the public than originally expected.


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