Museums of Berlin

Synthesis of the intervention of Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper (Technical University of Berlin) by Laurella Rinçon, Heritage Curator, Ministry of Culture and Communication, translated by Madeleine Planeix-Crocker


The relationship one has to a piece of art is personal, yet it also adopts a collective dimension according to whether we consider the cultural context from which the piece stems or that in which it is preserved. To whom do the pieces belong in the spaces where they are found, in the spaces from which they are absent, and finally in the spaces where they have once been? What is the role of the spectator, whether s/he is contemplating the piece at home, as a migrant or a tourist?

The construction of the island of museums (Museuminsel)

The construction of museums in Berlin was prompted by royal will, namely in the context of the Napoleonic wars as of 1810. The Altes Museum, first public museum in Berlin, was the royal museum until 1845. It was built to house the Prussian royal family’s art collection, composed of pieces from Greek antiquity, as well as pieces gathered from Prussian castles. The museum was made open to the public in 1830 so as to become “a school in the training of taste” and was dedicated first and foremost to a Prussian public. In this spirit, Frédéric-Guillaume IV decided to transform the island of Spree into a new cultural Acropolis. He created the Island of museums as a haven of culture and civilization. The Neues Museum was built on this island between 1843 and 1855 and housed collections of ancient plasters and ancient Egyptian relics brought back from the first large-scale Prussian expedition in Egypt, commissioned by Frédéric-Guillaume IV to Karl Richard Lepsius. The AlteNationalgalerie (national gallery) was founded in 1861, thanks to the donation of 262 paintings by the banker Johann Heinrich Wagener and was inaugurated in 1876 by emperor Guillaume the 1st. The collection was first presented in the Academy of the arts in Berlin. The Bode Museum (formerly the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum) was built between 1897 and 1904, and was meant to house collections from various Christian eras. The first Museum of Pergamon was built, then a second version was finished in 1930, opened in 1936, only to be closed and then re-opened in 1939.

These island museums created a monumental city, which is characteristic of Berlin. Such constructions of a Prussian identity targeted a cultivated German population rather than foreign tourists. Today, the Island of museums is a heritage site that attracts tourists from around the world.


Heritage under peril during World War II

Numerous renovations were required due to the damage caused by bombings. Ensuring the safety of pieces required several preservation strategies to be put into use. For instance, all the pieces in the Neues Museum placed in the Blockhaus-bunker in Berlin were burned at the end of the war. The only saved pieces were large-scale paintings placed in the museum’s basement. There were many definitive losses, thefts and loans to Nazi institutions. In 1945, not a single museum on the Island was found intact. The Red Army transported a large portion of the East Berlin and East German collections to Moscow; all other pieces were placed under American authority. The Island found itself on the Eastern side; in the West remained the small Dahlem museum built in in 1912. The lack of exhibition spaces became a challenge with regard to the public presentation of pieces. In 1918, a foundation for Prussian cultural possessions was created which managed both castles and collections; however, the division of Germany required new solutions for the preservation of heritage. In 1956, a new judicial entity managed all art works placed in West Germany. This group was situation in West Berlin and became the institutional foundation for the construction of new museums and collections.


Post-war reconstruction

The Dahlem museum thrived during the 1960s, benefiting from the rearrangement and complex transformation of three museums (museum of the arts of Asia, museum of ethnology and museum of European cultures). New Dahlem buildings became the ground-works of a new museum landscape in West Berlin. In East Berlin, the Island of museums was reinvigorated and reopened in 1966, after serious bombings. At the peak of the socialist era, the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum was renamed after its founder, the first museum conservationist and director of the royal museums, Arnold Wilhelm von Bode. The impact carried on global cultural policy, as well as the influence of the war on Berlin art collections and their visitors can be understood by reading the story of these buildings.

Following the fall of the wall, these policies were dedicated to a quest for unity. This meant recreating a connection between the painting collections of the National gallery in the East and those of the West, maintained independent for forty years and thus congregated in different manners. The critical reception of the reunification exhibition of artists from the East and the West inaugurated at the National gallery in 1994 is a testimony to these challenges. In 2012-2013, a “divided sky” policy was installed, named after the title of Christa Wolff’s novel (Der geterilte Himmel, Erzählung, 1963).


The pieces’ civil status

In 1810, king Frédéric-Guillaume III purchased two Caspar David Friedrich paintings. Considered as pieces of Prussian resistance against Napoleonic occupation, these works were part of the royal collection, exhibited in private family apartments, and later in the first painting gallery. These two pieces were preserved outside of West Berlin, then returned to the capital after the war and presented at the royal castle in Charlottenburg, included in the royal family’s collection. Nonetheless, a debate arose during the reunification of the National gallery between the former conservationist of the Charlottenburg paintings and the Prussian foundation that, according to the law of 1957, was deemed the owner of the paintings. Questions of relevance of the presentation of these pieces in museums or in castles fueled the controversy. Understanding the evolution of the pieces from their creation to their successive acquisitions and presentations demonstrates the importance that must be granted to such collections.

Today, the ethnographic collections spur debate, namely architectural pieces, yet they also give rise to questions regarding the history of collections, their origin, acquisition and juridical status granted to pieces. The pieces presented in various locations in Berlin have now acquired a certain form of citizenship. They belong to the public, the city inhabitants. This is what I call the artwork’s civil status.

[french version]
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