World Heritage: Museum Island

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A couple of things to find on a not-so-deserted island: classic artworks by great masters, precious relics from ancient times, Egyptian queen Nefertiti, and world-famous Pergamon Altar. What we’re talking about? Obviously, Berlin’s Museum Island. Five of the most prestigious museums in the world form an exceptional cultural complex in the heart of the German capital. It took a century to finish construction, and the architecture is a prime example of a whole epoch. Nowadays, the buildings and its collections are considered UNESCO World Heritage. Welcome to Museum Island!


For a long time, access to collections of art and historic relics was reserved to an exclusive, aristocratic elite. In the 18th century, the bourgeoisie became stronger and more influential and in the course of enlightenment and educational reforms they demanded public museums. Prussian King Frederick William II was open to such ideas and charged style-defining architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel with planning Prussia’s first institution of such kind on an island in the Spree river. Schinkel designed not only the Altes Museum, but intended to reshape the entire island with rectified canals and new bridges, thus laying the foundation for the entire complex that now is Museum Island. The king entrusted philosopher and university founder Wilhelm von Humboldt (older brother of legendary explorer Alexander von Humboldt) with the conceptual design for the new museums. After just five years of construction, Altes Museum was opened in 1830. In 1859, Neues Museum followed, in 1876 the Alte Nationalgalerie. A “Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum” opened in 1904, it is now called Bode-Museum to honor its longstanding director. To display ancient Pergamon Altar, the last museum building was constructed until 1930 – Pergamon Museum. All buildings suffered considerable damage during world war II. All but one – Neues Museum, a heavily damaged ruin at the time – were reconstructed during the GDR. After the German reunification in 1990, Neues Museums was rebuilt and all museums have been renovated in the course of Masterplan Musemsinsel. A new visitor centre and central entrance to all museum is currently under construction. The opening of James Simon Gallery is scheduled for 2019. Being an exceptional complex both culturally and architecturally, Museum Island made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999.

Altes Museum

Altes Museum (“Old Museum”) with its broad atrium and flight of stairs leading down to Lustgarten park and neighboring Berlin Cathedral is considered to be on of the most representative buildings in the capital. Originally planned as a comprehensive museum for all “high arts” it has been home to the famous collection of antiques since 1904. On the ground floor, a huge collection of objects from ancient Greece is on display, upstairs exhibits from Roman and Etruscan times can be found.

Neues Museum

For more than 50 years, Neues Museum (“New Museum”) was nothing but a ruin among splendid buildings. Almost completely destroyed by bombs during world war II it was not until 1999 that reconstruction officially began. British architect David Chipperfield led the project which was completed in 2009. Since then, it has been home to the Egyptian Museum with world-famous Nefertiti Bust. Prehistoric and protohistoric exhibits can be seen, too, as well as the extensive collection of papyrus

Alte Nationalgalerie

One of the prettiest buildings in town, Alte Nationalgalerie (“Old National Gallery”) lies in the beautiful garden of Kolonnadenhof. Architecturally it is situated somewhere at the transition from late classicism to neo-renaissance. On display are artworks from classicism, romanticism, biedermeier, impressionism, and early modernism, among them paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Bode Museum

When approaching Museum Island on or along the Spree river, your first sight will be that of Bode Museum. The round facade with the impressive dome marks the northern end of the island and makes for one of the most iconic views of the capital. The museum was opened in 1904 as “Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum” but later renamed to honour the longstanding director of the museums, Wilhelm von Bode. Since the re-opening in 2006 Bode Museum hosts the huge collection of sculptures as well as the museum for Byzantine art and the coin collection. Not only should you check out the amazing sculptures by artists like Donatello or Tilman Riemenschneider, but also the beautiful sunset over the Spree river on the pedestrian bridges in front of the museum.

Pergamon Museum

Pergamon Altar, the culmination of ancient Hellenic art, was constructed in the 2nd century B.C. on a castle hill in Anatolia, now Turkey. German engineer Carl Humann had its remains dug up and shipped to Berlin in the 19th century. Up to this day it is controversial, whether the relics were stolen from the original place in a colonialist manner or rather saved from scavenging and destruction. Specifically in order to display the impressive altar the Pergamon Museum was built, it also hosts the Near Eastern museum and the museum for Islamic art. Unfortunately, the big hall containing the Pergamon Altar will be closed for renovation until 2024.

Visit and tickets

To visit every single exhibition on Museum Island you would probably need numerous days. It is definitely worth it to “peek” into all five museums though and to pick a few individual highlights everywhere. Your best deal is the Museum Pass Berlin which includes admission to 30 museums on three continuous days, among them all five museums on the island. The three-day ticket is 29.90€ and can be purchased at all participating museums. You may also visit each museum individually, admission is between 10 and 12 €. On Mondays, all museums are closed, all other days they’re open 10 am to 6 pm (8 pm on Thursdays).

Pictures: Datei: #206244361 | Urheber: eyetronic – fotolia

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