The best European museums you’ve never heard of – Museuminsel, Berlin

Property 896 – Museuminsel, Berlin, Germany

Frankly it’s a miracle that anything worth documenting remains in Berlin.

The last hundred years have not been kind to the German capital. It’s always been the poor cousin of the larger European capitals, but in the 20th century it was impoverished, bombed flat, occupied, partitioned, ignored, and finally reunified with a vastly expanded role in Europe. Amazingly enough, large parts of historical Berlin have survived and have been repaired. The rush of redevelopment after reunification of the Germanies in 1990 helped repair the remaining areas of wartime rubble and have recast Berlin, yet again, as a major world city.

The river Spree runs through the heart of Berlin, and floating in the middle is the the Museuminsel (Museum Island).  The northern wedge of the boat-shaped island is home to a cluster of world-class museums, and this is the basis of the World Heritage nomination. In some ways it’s a curious nomination, and I wonder whether it’s intended to be a consolation prize. The other major European capitals are riddled with World Heritage sites, but the destruction and partition of Berlin has made this impossible.

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That said, it’s not a terrible nomination. It sheds an interesting light on the rise of the Prussian state and European values. Prussia, the former eastern region of Germany centred on Berlin, has had a bad press for a long time.  Prussian culture has been associated with the worst excesses of both world wars, perhaps unfairly, and most of historical Prussia is now within the borders of Poland.

However during the 19th century, Prussia was one of the leading lights of European enlightenment thinking. After being crushed during the Napoleonic wars, a series of Prussian monarchs built up their kingdom based on a kind of enlightenment despotism. Science and culture were strongly supported, in parallel with the development of the military and expansion of the empire.

The museums themselves tracked this development. Initially the “altes museum” was constructed as an exhibition hall for art, but as more buildings were added the area was dedicated to “art and science”. Building construction continued up until the 1930s with the construction of the Pergamon museum. The collections were separated during the cold war, but since 1990 they have been recombined and the whole site has been redeveloped. Over time the museums and their contents began to match each other in a strangely harmonious way.

The contents of the museums are pretty impressive. The European empires took great pleasure in buying, borrowing and stealing the cultural treasures of other regions which fell under their control. Prussia/Germany was no exception to this, and many of these items  wound up in the Museuminsel museums. Although they can’t compete with the Russian and British equivalents in terms of extent, the collection is of very high quality.

Standout items for me included the enormous Ishtar Gate, one of the gates of ancient Babylon which was removed to Berlin in the early 20th century. The room in which it’s stored can barely contain it, and the glazed blue bricks are stunning. The gateway is easily ten metres tall and must have been awe-inspiring for visitors to ancient Babylon. The walls are decorated with images of local animals, including an aurochs, the porto-cow from which our modern livestock are descended.

Another favourite piece is the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. She was the wife of the religious heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, and may have been the mother or aunt of Tutankhamun. Most traces of her existence were expunged after her death, so it’s amazing that we have such records as we do. Egyptian art isn’t known for being particularly lifelike, so it’s stunning how lifelike and glamourous she looks.

An afternoon spent on the Museuminsel is likely to lead to museum fatigue, I won’t lie. There’s a lot of walking to be done. But it’s highly recommended for the boutique collection and the close fit between museum and contents. And you definitely won’t have to face the queues of the Louvre.

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