Berlin’s museums are still suffering from the effects of World War II and forty years of Communism

British architect David Chipperfield has pacified both conservatives and progressives with his masterplan for the Museum Island which links the museums by underground tunnels


After ten years of wrangling over its future, the outlook for Berlin’s Museuminsel (Museum Island) is brightening up. Historically the core of Berlin, this island between the two arms of the river Spree became the centre for Berlin’s State museums during the nineteenth century. At the end of World War II, the island fell in the Soviet sector and under the subsequent Communist regime, all the museums reopened, with the exception of the Neues Museum which remains a ruin.

In June, the board of the Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz, the governing body for the seventeen State museums in and around Berlin, finally approved a masterplan for the reconstruction and reorganisation of the island’s five museum buildings, designed by London-based David Chipperfield. Mr Chipperfield, forty-five, worked for stars such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers before opening his own architectural firm in 1984. His reputation rests on individualistic designs such as the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames (completed 1997) and the Toyota Auto Corporation building in Kyoto, Japan (completed this year).

After long-standing debate over the future of the island’s museums, a compromise has now been reached between the desires of both conservatives and modernisers. The conservatives wanted to see the island restored to its original, historical appearance. Some even proposed presenting at least part of the collections—mainly ancient Egyptian through to Roman antiquities—in a nineteenth-century manner. All of them joined in fighting Wolf-Dieter Dube, the recently retired director general of the State Museums, who had a revolutionary plan intended to attract four million visitors a year.

Mr Chipperfield convinced the board of the Kulturbesitz with his idea of connecting four of the five buildings underground. Only the Alte Nationalgalerie building will be left out because its collection differs entirely from those in the other institutions, and also because the building rests on a pedestal which can only be entered overground.

Schinkel’s museum opened in 1830, and became the Altes Museum (Old Museum) after the construction of the Neues Museum began in 1841. The former housed the royal collections, with Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings and sculpture. The latter was designed to house only the growing archaeological collections. The Pergamon Museum, which was completed in 1930, was designed to house the rapidly growing collections from Near Eastern excavations. The Bode Museum at the tip of the island was reserved for arrangements of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts evocative of rooms in Renaissance or baroque palaces.

The new concept for the museum island, which dates back to the hectic days of 1990 when Berlin’s formerly divided art collections were reunited, calls for a concentration of all archaeological collections on the island. Large items from different collections, such as the Pergamon altar or the temple of Sahur, may be exhibited together in the Pergamon Museum’s at present unused and uncovered courtyard. Joint access between these archaeological collections was therefore required.

Mr Chipperfield’s project allows the buildings to keep their existing entrances, with the addition only of a relatively unobtrusive structure in front of the Neues Museum to receive tourist groups and direct them underground via what Mr Chipperfield calls an “Archaeological Promenade” to the different buildings, past their most famous treasures, such as the bust of Nefertiti. In this way, the museum will cater to the needs of both the lingering individual and fast moving group.

When asked why the design was so low-profile, Mr Chipperfield said that the museum island did not need another ego: “There’s enough architecture here already.” His masterplan has already won the approval of the preservation authorities, while Professor Dube’s favourite design in the first competition, by Frank Gehry, was rejected. Professor Dube laments this rejection of “the last chance to add a contemporary architectural idiom to the island’s classicism.”

As yet there is no estimate for the cost of the Chipperfield project, but merely reconstructing the partly damaged and much neglected museum buildings is expected to cost as much as DM2 billion (£220 million; $352 million). The masterplan is scheduled for completion within ten years. Federal minister of culture Michael Naumann, who also chairs the board of the Preussischer Kulturbesitz (a sign of how important the future of Berlin’s museums is considered for Germany as a whole) commented: “It would be difficult to let the public wait any longer.”

What you will see

o Altes Museum Greek and Roman sculpture and small items from the Antiquities Collection.

o Neues Museum Egyptian art and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

(Museum of Pre- and Early History)

o Pergamon Museum architectural archeological items (already in situ and too risky to move) such as the Babylon Procession Row, the Miletus Market Gate, the Ishtar Gate (part of the Islamic collection). Large items from the Egyptian collection will be shown in the courtyard if the plan to cover it by a steel-and-glass roof is approved by the board of the Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Whether the famous altar from Pergamon can be moved into that courtyard and shown free-standing, as at its original site, remains under discussion.

o Bode Museum Sculpture collection, Byzantine collection, coins and medals. A definitive use for the Bode Museum is not yet decided. So far, there has been a reaction against the old concept of period rooms.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘No museum is an island'