Prof. Dr. Hermann Parzinger: Museum Island Berlin – UNESCO Heritage on the way to new splendour

At the centre of Berlin, between Spree and Kupfergraben, you will find an unequalled gem: the Museum Island, a fascinating ensemble of museums and cultural history, enchanting millions of visitors from within and without Germany every year.


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The Museum Island Berlin has been a UNESCO Heritage since 1999. And from that year on the number of visitors has been increasing continuously. In the past few years, about three million people have seen the treasures that can be found here: the comprehensive collections on the history of art and culture in Europe and the Middle East in the National Museums in Berlin; but also the five buildings raised between 1830 and 1930, which represent 100 years of museum architecture in the middle of Berlin. And we can expect even more visitors because since the opening of the New Museum in October 2009, all five houses on the island have been accessible again – for the first time in 70 years, during which the museums were closed due to the war.

The history of the Museum Island in Berlin begins with the Old Museum, which was opened in 1830 as the “Royal Museum” next to the “Pleasure Garden” (“Lustgarten”). Eleven years later, in 1841, King Frederick William IV of Prussia decreed that “the entire island in the Spree behind the museum be remodelled to become a sanc­­tuary for art and sciences”. August Stüler, a pupil of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, used this to develop a plan which laid down the basic structure of what would later become a group of museums. According to his plan, the New Museum and the National Gallery were built as the first ones. Sub­­sequently, the opening of the Bode Museum at the northern end of the island followed in 1904 and of the Pergamon Museum in 1930. Closed in 1939 due to the outbreak of World War II, all museums were damaged during the war.
At the time of the GDR, the buildings were reconstructed as well as possible and used again. Already then the Museum Island was internationally known as an important museum site. The German re­­unification finally opened up the unique opportunity to reunite the formerly split collections from East and West. This was overseen by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. In 1999 the so-called master plan Museum Island for the reconstruction and a modern development of the entire museum quarter was decided on. This was important, on the one hand, to maintain the nature of the historic exhibition buildings and on the other hand, to develop them into a museum complex that is fit for the future. The in­­creasing number of visitors shows how important the additional infra­­structure is, which will come with the new entrance building and the archaeological promenade.

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The first splendid milestone in the resto­ration of the Museum Island was achieved in December 2001, when the Old National Gallery was reopened. In 2006 the Bode Museum followed – since its refurbishment it has been the home to a sculpture collec­­tion and the museum of Byzantine Art, complemented by works from the picture gallery as well as the chamber of coins and the children’s gallery. In October 2009 the New Museum, reconstructed by David Chipperfield Architects, was opened for the public. Here, you can now find the museum of prehistory and early history, complemented by objects from the collec­­tion of antiques as well as the Egyptian museum and the papyrus collection. The world-famous bust of Nefertiti has also found its final place there. Anyway, the works on the Museum Island are not finished by far, yet.
Already now the sixth building on the Museum Island is being worked on – the James Simon Gallery, which will be the central visitors’ centre and take over impor­­tant service functions for the Museum Island. From 2013 on it will receive the stream of visitors in an appropriate way. There are also two more historic buildings that need to be refurbished: the Old Museum and the Pergamon Museum.
In addition, the Pergamon Museum will receive a fourth wing in the next few years allowing a complete round tour to the antique architectural exhibits like the Pergamon Altar, the procession street of Babylon, the Mshatta façade and the Gate of Kalabsha, which can be entered right from the new entrance building. The big and highly complex construction project will be worked on in different stages and it will take several more years to finish.

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At the same time, another major project is carried out in the direct vicinity of the Museum Island, opposite the Old Museum: The Humboldt Forum at the Schlossplatz (Palace Square), which will be dedicated to the cultures of the world. The Humboldt Forum is going to be a modern centre of arts and sciences and it is designed to impart knowledge in a varied and lively way, enable intercultural encounters and international exchange and to get people fascinated in other cultures. Three insti­tutes will design it and enter into an all-new combination of cultural, educational and research facilities: the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation with the non-European collections of its National Museums in Berlin, the Humboldt Uni­ver­sity as well as the Central and Regional Library Berlin. By cooperating with national and international partners as well as involving representatives of the cultures, contemporary artists or visitors as inter­­active participants, the Humboldt Forum is to become an open, appealing place for everybody, creating understanding and respect for cultural diversity and from where links can be forged between the cultures. In future the Humboldt Forum and the Museum Island will complement each other. The collections of art and culture from Africa, America, Asia, Australia and Oceania will be added to those of Europe and the Middle East. This way the middle of Berlin will become a highly symbolic place at the centre of Berlin where all cultures will find their place.

Parzinger_IMG_3345The author, born in 1959, has been the president of the “Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation”, one of the world’s biggest cultural and scientific institutions, since March 2008. From 2003 to 2008, he was the president of the German Archae­­ological Institute. Since 1996 Mr Parzinger has been teaching at the Free University of Berlin. In 1998 he was the first archaeologist to be awarded the Leibniz Award of the German Research Foundation.