Berlin's Museum Island regains its former glory

Sunday, September 21, 2003

— Germany's troubled 20th century can be viewed at a glance at its famed Museum Island.

Not in the collections, but in the bullet holes from World War II battles that still pockmark its facades, and the crumbling interiors that deteriorated during 40 years of communist East German rule.

Germany now is in the process of transforming the five neoclassical museums that are clustered on an island in the Spree River into a cultural center to rival Paris' Louvre and London's British Museum.

The complex eventually will unite collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, Egyptian artifacts, 19th-century painting, Byzantine art and Near Eastern antiquities long scattered by last century's wars and political divisions. While construction has been under way for five years, Berlin's financial woes have discouraged anyone from predicting completion.

"We have a concept that is truly unique in the world -- an integrated presentation of 6,000 years of human cultural history," said Gisela Holan, who oversees the building project.

The new master plan closely resembles the concept developed as Museum Island was constructed, beginning with Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum in 1830 through the completion in 1930 of the Pergamon Museum with its trove of ancient wonders.

World War II ended the brief, decade-long realization of the vision.

The collections were put into hiding for safekeeping from Allied bombardment and eventually dispersed. Still, some pieces were claimed as war booty. Most were eventually returned, with the notable exception of the Trojan Gold, displayed at Moscow's Pushkin Museum.

Significant collection

The treasures that one day will be collected in the complex range from the celebrated 3,000-year-old bust of Nefrititi to the impressive Pergamon altar and ancient Ishtar gate to works by 19th-century masters such as Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne.

"The Museum Island has one of the most significant collections in the world ... in almost all areas," said Bernd Schultz, a Berlin art critic and director of the city's Villa Grisebach auction house.

Its range is all the more impressive, he says, because museums elsewhere had a head start. "One should not forget that the Louvre and the British Museum collected over centuries," while Germany -- and the complex -- only came together in the 19th century, Schultz said.

For the Museum Island's post-reunification rebirth, Berlin tapped international talent including Austrian architect Heinz Tesar and Britain's David Chipperfield in a bid to balance modernization with the capital's turbulent history.

At the Neues Museum, which beginning in 2009 will house the city's Egyptian collection, that will mean deliberately not concealing evidence of destruction in wartime fire-bombing and subsequent neglect -- leaving gray scars on damaged friezes, for example.

"We want to make this building whole again, but we don't want to just rebuild it," Annette Flohrschutz, an assistant to Chipperfield, told visitors on a final tour of the building before six years of reconstruction started last month.

"People will see ... just how far the destruction went," Flohrschutz said. "Every period has a right to be seen."

'World War II has ended'

City museum director Peter-Klaus Schuster describes the restoration of Museum Island as part of "a concept of healing the city," tying the restoration with other projects in the heart of former East Berlin.

Just across the river, architect I.M. Pei recently completed his glass-fronted extension to the German Historical Museum. Across Unter den Linden is the site of a baroque Prussian palace, dynamited in 1950 by East German authorities, whose facade is now to be rebuilt -- once the money is found.

"We can finally say that World War II has ended on the Museum Island," Schuster said.