Germany to give €73m towards new visitor centre in Berlin

The complex is expected to attract 4m visitors a year by the end of the decade


The German parliament last month agreed to provide €73m ($93.6m) for a new visitor centre and exhibition galleries on Museum Island (Museumsinsel). This decision was made following the successful renovation of the Bode Museum, which contains sculptures, as well as Byzantine art, coins and selected paintings. It was inaugurated on 19 October (The Art Newspaper, November 2006, pp. 20, 21).

The new centre is to be known as the James Simon Gallery, after the Berlin National Museums’ greatest private patron, who died in 1932. Designed by British architect David Chipperfield, it will be a modern glass structure, and will include temporary exhibition galleries. Construction is due to start in 2009, for completion in 2012, which is earlier than had been anticipated before last month’s funding decision. This will enable Museum Island to cope with the 4m visitors a year which are expected by the end of the decade.

The James Simon Gallery will also provide the entrance for a planned Archaeological Promenade–an underground walk route running the full length of Museum Island, linking up all the museums.

Museum Island, which lies in the River Spree, was chosen in the 19th century as the home for some of Germany’s greatest museums. There are five separate museums on Museum Island, all of which were badly damaged by Allied bombing during the World War II. Four were reopened during the communist period, but after German reunification in 1990 these still needed major work to bring them up to modern standards. All are part of the Berlin National Museums, the umbrella organisation which runs 17 state-funded museums, on a budget of €80m ($102.5m) a year.

Berlin National Museums director-general Professor Peter-Klaus Schuster told The Art Newspaper about his ambitious plans. His next project is the New Museum (Neues Museum), dating from 1859. It was the most severely damaged during the war, and was abandoned as a ruin. The project is also being undertaken by Chipperfield, who is aiming for something between a restoration of the original fabric and a modern reconstruction, at a cost of €300m ($384.5m). Reopening in 2009, the New Museum will house Egyptian antiquities and the Pre- and Early-History collection.

There will then be an expansion of the Pergamon Museum, which is open, but in need of improved facilities and additional space. The Pergamon Altar is in the central building, with the Ancient Near East and Classical Antiquities in side wings on the main floor and Islamic art on half of the upper level. A fourth wing is to built, next to the river, in a contemporary style, with glass, quite unlike the stone facade of the original 1930 three-wing construction. Work should start in 2009, although it has not yet been decided whether the whole of the existing museum will have to temporarily close, and completion might be in 2015. Costs are estimated at €350m ($448.6m).

In addition to the Bode Museum, two other museums have been recently renovated. The first was the Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie), dating from 1876. Following extensive renovations in the late 1990s, it was reopened in 2001, to house 19th-century paintings.

The original institution on Museum Island was the Old Museum (Altes Museum), designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and completed in 1830. This too has been renovated, reopening in May 2005. It houses classical sculptures on the lower floor, with the Egyptian collection, including the head of Queen Nefertiti, on the upper level (Egyptian antiquities will move to the New Museum in 2009).

Professor Schuster’s ambitions go way beyond the five institutions on Museum Island. He wants to move the non-European collections (Indian, East Asian and Ethnographic) from their existing museums at Dahlem, in the south-western suburbs of Berlin, and bring them to the site of the former royal palace, which was demolished by the communist regime in 1950. This lies just across the Unter den Linden boulevard from Museum Island. Professor Schuster estimates the cost at around €500m ($640m), but admits that the state is “likely to be reluctant to be the major funder”, so private money will be needed.

This leaves the old master paintings awkwardly placed three kilometres away near Potsdamer Platz, in the Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie) at the Kulturforum, which was opened in 1998. Ultimately, the hope is to build another gallery just opposite the Bode Museum, on the other side of the Spree. This would leave the Kulturforum’s Picture Gallery free for the expanding collection of 20th-century art. The adjacent New National Gallery (Neue Nationalgalerie), designed by Mies van der Rohe and dating from 1968, could then be solely used for temporary exhibitions.

Despite the huge costs and disruption, the plans are to bring together all the museums housing pre-1900 art to the Museum Island area, to make it one of Europe’s greatest museum attractions.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Germany to give €73m towards new visitor centre'