Contra-AmnesiaNeues Museum Berlin (2009)Karsten Schubert2009Neues Museum

I visited the Museum Island for the first time in about 1978 with my mother. To do so was still a Cold War adventure, involving a U-Bahn journey from Zoo station in the West. On its way the train had to crawl through Kochstraße station – closed since the day the wall went up – a pair of heavily armed soldiers slowly pacing up and down its dimly lit platform. Stepping off the train at Friedrichstraße station, we went through border control, had our passports stamped, and exchanged West for East marks, which was compulsory.


All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike. 
Marcus Aurelius (1)


I visited the Museum Island for the first time in about 1978 with my mother. To do so was still a Cold War adventure, involving a U-Bahn journey from Zoo station in the West. On its way the train had to crawl through Kochstraße station – closed since the day the wall went up – a pair of heavily armed soldiers slowly pacing up and down its dimly lit platform. Stepping off the train at Friedrichstraße station, we went through border control, had our passports stamped, and exchanged West for East marks, which was compulsory. Outside the station was a different world: dark, drizzly, damp, drained of colour, with only a few streetlamps. A pall of brown-grey coal smoke was hanging over everything and all sounds were muffled. There was very little traffic and only a handful of pedestrians, who avoided eye contact as they hurried into the fog. There was the odd bus, and from time to time a Trabant car noisily spluttered past, its yellow headlights barely strong enough to pierce the gloom. After a short walk we reached the Museum Island, a blackened broken mass hardly discernible against the gloomy sky. In order to get to the Pergamon Museum one had to cross a rickety steel and wood bridge across the Spree River, the black water visible between the planks. To the right was the Neues Museum, completely ruined and without hope, behind it that ludicrous Gründerzeit wedding cake, the Nationalgalerie. Inside the Pergamon Museum were hardly any other visitors, and my memory is very much of my mother and myself having the place to ourselves. The interior felt particularly cold the way unheated buildings do. The galleries were barely illuminated, with a strong smell of dust, floor polish and stale canteen food hanging in the air. My strongest recollection is not of the Pergamon Altar, the Milet Market Gate or the Ishtar monuments, but of the Spinario in a side gallery, self-absorbedly gazing at his foot. Suddenly a train would rumble past the windows, disconcertingly high and close, its lights momentarily swaying the forest of sculptures, and then silence and darkness again. It was truly magical and still feels so thirty years later.

After leaving the museums we tried, unsuccessfully, to spend our East marks (as on your way out you had to hand back what you had not spent). To my surprise the shops really were empty; I had always thought that this was just counter-propaganda from our side. We finally found a bookshop where, alas, the only things on offer were Marx and Engels Collected Writings. I bought a set, not making much of a dent in our East Mark stash. We finally ended up at the Friedrichstraße station café, the interior blue with cigarette smoke, to have a cup of Ersatz coffee and some stale cake. We made quite an entrance. My mother was wearing a full-length black fur coat, which prompted stares from the clientele with a mix of idle curiosity and mild resentment. Whilst there was nothing wrong then with fur per se, it sure marked us as out as ‘not from here.’ Back at Friedrichstraße, we proceeded in reverse: through passport control, returning the leftover money and finally the five-minute journey back to theWest. We stepped off the train at Zoo station – clutching Marx and Engels – and out into the dazzling brightness of the world we had left behind only a few hours ago.


In Berlin the ground is sodden with history, but unlike, say, in Rome, here it does not come with the comfort of distance or leisurely, mythologising (re-)telling. Here it is as if somebody had conducted a perverse experiment trying to figure out how much world drama could be crammed into the smallest amount of space in the shortest time closest to the present. Berlin, the Prussian capital, a backwater really, reborn as the capital of the first unified Germany and bloated by Gründerzeit industrialisation, two generations later re-imagined by Albert Speer as the capital of the world (to be renamed Germania after the war was won).A city bombed to smithereens, divided, each half turned autonomous in all its various functions, and finally made whole again. Not enough time has gone by to reconcile the past, and the various scars of destruction and repair are still purple and shiny. In some places it still looks as if the ground has been deep-ploughed with explosives, while in others a soothing calm has set in. The largest scar of all, the run of the wall, has healed surprisingly well, and it needs a trained eye to discern its serrated trajectory. The remnants of the Third Reich, on the other hand, are unavoidable, mostly because of their humongous scale. There are relatively few reminders of the GDR: proof, if really needed, that it is the victor who tells the story.

Like the city as a whole, the Neues Museum had been subjected to the hand of history’s brutally accelerated ageing process. Its mid-19th-century architecture had been pummelled and eroded to a degree normally seen only in truly old buildings, resulting in material losses on a scale one associates more with antiquity. That this should have happened to a historicist structure only adds complexity and wonder to the result.

In the 1840s, Friedrich August Stüler designed the sequences of historicising interiors of the Neues Museum to provide backdrop and background information for the works of art on display. These suites were in turn introduced by Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s mural cycle in the main staircase. The ensemble as a whole added up to a concise weltbild, if with a strong Germanic tilt, the grandest and final monument of Prussian Enlightenment. Individual galleries were a deft and fanciful reinvention of particular chapters of the past, but each room was to be partly defaced, fragmented or completely erased by the ravages of war and subsequent weather exposure. Ironically, the rather over-the-top high-colour interiors of the 1850s never looked truer than today, as if the sole purpose of war and weather was to make them palatable to contemporary, more minimalist sensibilities. It is the best-preserved rooms, like the Niobidensaal, that seem gaudy and inauthentic.

The question of the Neues Museum’s ‘authentic state,’ much bandied about today, turns out to be a bit of a red herring. Begun in 1843 and structurally completed four years later, the final galleries and von Kaulbach’s murals were not finished until a decade later. Within a few years, the process of gradual change and adaptation began, culminating with the installation of the new galleries for the Amarna finds in 1919/23. In a sense the building was never truly ‘completed.’ At the beginning of the Second World War the evacuation of the museum collections started the saga of their dispersal to East and West, many works never to be seen again, destroyed in their place of safekeeping, while others, for decades thought lost, reappeared in the Soviet Union, their ultimate fate still in the balance. Miraculously, most of the art was saved.

It was not only the politics and external historical circumstances that kept changing. The Neues Museum was an embarrassingly late child of the Enlightenment, the last attempt at a universal encyclopaedic museum organised under a single narrative arc, but by the time of its realisation the idea’s moment had already passed. Universality had given way to specialisation, and the various components of the collection began to be considered autonomous. In collecting terms, the second half of the 19th century was a golden age, and as a result of an aggressive acquisition policy the Berliner Museen quickly began to burst at the seams. More and more of the specialist collections were then moved to other locations, in particular the Völkerkundemuseum, Schloss Monbijou and the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Martin Gropius Bau).With universality and ‘completeness’ no longer the primary goal, the plaster cast collection (which had taken up, after all, the entire central floor) disappeared from display. By the beginning of the 20th century the Neues Museum must have looked decidedly outdated, the galleries’ decor speaking louder of the 1850s than the various periods they pertained to and their programmatic unity frayed. This may explain the accelerating pace of interventions to both the structure of the building and its thematic canon. To this day the museum’s enduring influence can be sensed in every period interior setting in museums worldwide. Stüler’s rather fanciful free-wheeling inventions have given way to a sober preference for actual period rooms, now painstakingly removed from their original settings and reassembled in museums.

Whatever damage was inflicted to the Neues Museum by changing curatorial fashion, it was minor compared to what happened during the Second World War. Repeated Allied bombings and finally the fierce battle for Berlin in 1945 left the building barely standing. While the Communist regime patched the other structures on the Museum Island, the Neues Museumwas left with minimal repair. This can partly be explained by its particularly ruinous state. More likely though, the neglect was the consequence of Stüler’s thematic-didactic programme, which had become deeply problematic after 1945. Karl Friedrich Schinkel, at a pinch, could be re-interpreted as a forerunner of (socialist) modernism – his Altes Museum was clumsily restored – but Prussian historicism was, initially, a different matter. As the East Germans were not shy with bulldozer and dynamite, one can only assume that those in power must have had an inkling at least that, given enough time, Prussia and the GDR too could be moulded into a single, seamless narrative, something that indeed was beginning to happen in the 1980s (to great irritation in West Germany, where a claim on Prussia had also been filed). Reconstruction work on the Neues Museum finally began in earnest in the summer of 1989.A few months later the GDR had collapsed.

In the following decade a master plan was drawn up for the island, and the Bode Museum (2000 – 2006) and the Alte Nationalgalerie (1998 – 2001) were restored to great acclaim. The Neues Museum again remained the island’s basket case. In 1993/94 and 1994 – 97, a complicated and lengthy competition for the revival of the Neues Museum was held. The restoration or repair of the Neues Museum represented a professional conundrum. With its convoluted history and precarious state of preservation, what were an architect’s options? Not only was the building badly damaged, with forty percent of its substance gone, but central parts had been irretrievably destroyed – most importantly the main staircase and the west façade wing with the Egyptian Courtyard – the remainder smashed up and mangled beyond recognition. Many of the half-hearted rescue attempts had actually not alleviated but rather added to the problem. How exactly was one to put all these fragments back together, and make the delicate layering of history and Stüler’s interior programme legible again while creating a building that could accommodate the demands of cultural tourism and meet today’s rather stringent conservation and curatorial standards?

There were two conventional answers to this. One was to go for a faux authenticity, to conserve what was left and conjure up what was not and, depending on one’s ethos, render the difference more or less unintelligible. The other approach was to introduce a new overriding architectural master narrative in order to unite the fragmentary remains and create a visual whole. Both options had their proponents, and the faithful reconstruction idea in particular had many vocal defenders. Both models stand in a long post-war tradition, one from time to time gaining general favour over the other, but ultimately neither was convincing enough to carry the day.


It was to the Neues Museum’s benefit that neither model particularly fitted with the winning architect David Chipperfield’s professional ethos. The thought of faking what was missing had already been ruled out by the client in the competition brief, and Chipperfield could not have agreed more. Not only would such a choice run against a modernist ethos, but too much of the building was missing to consider such a radical approach in all seriousness. The building’s historicism added a further complication. To reconstruct interiors that were a historicising fantasy raised the question of what exactly such a combination represented and how it might be perceived. The interiors would be inauthentic as to the period style they pertained to and inauthentic as to the period of their creation, doubly timeless in the worst Orwellian sense imaginable. The most pragmatic argument against a wholesale reconstruction was the observation that, as the building had such a drawn-out gestation period, there would have been difficulty agreeing on a terminus ante quem to which such reconstruction work might aspire, a specific point in time when the Neues Museum seemed to appear particularly finished or ‘perfect.’ As we have seen, until its war destruction, the museum was a place of evolving ideas, functions and uses, and such an ‘ideal’ moment was simply impossible to pinpoint because, as a matter of fact, it had never occurred. To restore towards a fictitious ‘ideal’ state would create a building that had never actually existed. How to indicate that the building had been in ruins for fifty-odd years posed an additional challenge.

Yet it was another consideration that was probably more decisive in the rejection of a ‘faithful’ reconstruction. If the museum – in its transition from a universal to a specialist enterprise – had come to put emphasis on the authenticity of displays above all else, and by extension had become the ultimate arbiter and guarantor of such authenticity, it was to follow that the same standard would also have to hold true about its container. Doubt about the authenticity of the container would, as if by osmosis, cast in doubt the authenticity of the content. Here the question of authenticity of setting, because of its proximity to content, became the central issue. It made a completely novel, unorthodox and delicate approach necessary.

Certain buildings are reconstructed faithfully for political and symbolic reasons; for instance, questions of authenticity were not central to the thinking behind the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. The building had become a potent stand-in for complete chapters of German history: Saxon past, the Second World War destruction of Dresden, postwar division and finally reunification. To rebuild the church was to signal national renewal and to attest to a past not forgotten but atoned. It was, above all, a declaration of faith in the future. Such clear-cut symbolism is rare. In Berlin, a few hundred metres from the Altes Museum, the planned Schlossr reconstruction presents a different picture. If the symbolism of dynamiting the ruin in 1956 was obvious – the doing away with the key symbol of Prussian and German militarism – the thinking behind rebuilding the façade, re-naming the whole Humboldt-Forum and then placing non-Western art museums inside, offers a catalogue of contradictory gestures: the bold, the apologetic and the politically correct negate one another, an anxiety-riven symbolic dog’s dinner if there ever was one. The Neues Museum by the nature of what is, first and foremost, a museum, fortunately escaped the heavy hand of political symbolism. A place to regard the past, it was easier to adapt this perspective to regarding itself.

As for the question of a superimposed or unifying Chipperfield narrative, this idea was rejected too. Such an approach would have introduced a fourth storyline – aside from the historic building fragments, Stüler’s iconographic programme, and the displays of art from Ancient Egypt and Pre- and Early History. A cacophony of voices would have been the result, or worse maybe, the historic fabric and displays could have been completely overwhelmed by the architect’s intervention. Such an idea went against the architect’s temperament too.


The answer to this catalogue of objections and considerations was as startlingly original as it was simple: Chipperfield would not approach this project like an architect but rather like a conductor, uniting a diverse chorus of expert voices, here teasing out a tender note and there suppressing a shrill outburst. Chipperfield’s ‘orchestra,’ despite its great diversity, roughly divided into two halves. On one side there were those who were primarily concerned with the historic fabric of the building. On the other side were the curators whose job it was to make a new home for their stellar collections and accommodate future armies of visitors and their myriad needs. Each fraction in turn had its own supporting cast, and back catalogues of well-rehearsed arguments. The trick was to give each side its say. The whole process could have easily deteriorated into an over-my-dead-body standoff, with both sides insisting on the primacy of their particular concerns over all else, and surely there must have been moments of nearly complete deadlock. Each sub-fraction – the architectural historians, the collection curators, the conservators, the museum pedagogues, the display designers, to name only a few – came with its own set of doctrinaire views and seemingly non-negotiable ground rules. Inevitably, new, unexpected coalitions formed and new rifts sprung up continuously, yet gradually and miraculously a workable consensus emerged. The Neues Museum was not a case of form following function, but rather a compromise to be reached between (historic) form and (contemporary) function. To achieve this delicate balancing act required countless cross-disciplinary meetings in which every aspect of the building and its purpose was discussed and the smallest detail considered in all its wide-ranging implications. It is here that a particular gift of David Chipperfield came in handy: his ability to synthesise contrary views and have everybody arrive, seemingly of their own volition, exactly where he needed them to be. The architect’s hand is of course there, but it remained by and large invisible. The result is the stunning paradox of a building that is the architect’s in essence and spirit but not in appearance.

I visited the Neues Museum for two days in June 2009. I had worried beforehand that the building’s past would have either been wiped out in the reconstruction process, or worse, that some sort of ruin romanticism may have crept in. Another concern was that the building’s strong character might get in the way of its function as a museum, that the displays might be overwhelmed by the drama of Stüler’s ruin. I need not have worried. The museum had retained its particular qualities and all its scars, and if anything, the Stüler backdrop seemed to further enhance the function of the building as a home for the art of ancient Egypt and Pre-and Early History.My visit was scheduled just after the new display vitrines had arrived and been put in place. A casual remark somebody at Chipperfield’s office had made a few weeks before, that the architect and his team had spent months thinking about the particular nature of the collections that will be on display, now made sense. It seemed like something that an architect should automatically do, but actually most recent museum buildings have gone up without such scrutiny or consideration. The results are museums that looked best empty, without art and visitors (and recent books on museum architecture show, without fail, empty buildings). Chipperfield’s museum, on the other hand, felt as if something was missing when empty, and with the vitrines in place it became clear why this should be the case: the place was thought out with the displays in mind. No doubt when full of visitors it will look even better.

As for the restoration work, its rhythm and tone seem to change gently from room to room, depending on states of preservation and the character of Stüler’s inventions. Entirely rebuilt rooms follow Stüler’s outlines and echo – in material and colour – the rest of the building. Restored spaces range from the highly fragmentary to the fully preserved. The result is an enfilade of galleries of varying textures and densities. Often the displays and interiors are in dialogue. For instance, there is the rather catacomb-like basement space housing granite and marble sarcophagi; a large new stonewalled gallery houses the three Berlin mastabas, their monumentality subtly echoed by the architecture of the space; the Amarna courtyard will display a group of the famous plasters and sandstone trial pieces found in Thutmose’s studio. The most spectacular setting, the rotunda, its dome loosely based on the Pantheon in Rome, will contain the bust of Nefertiti. Her own rather gaudy colour and the high colour of the walls are in mutually beneficial dialogue. In the Moderner Saal the flow is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a cast of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Heaven for the Baptistry of St John’s in Florence, a reminder of what the first-floor gallery originally contained: the comprehensive collection of plaster casts. Fractured high drama in one gallery gives way to serenity and classicist restraint in the next, followed again by visual theatre – a succession of subtly graded surfaces and changing tones.

The changing rhythms of the spaces are not just a matter of aesthetics but also serve an important pedagogic function: they are a constant reminder to the visitor of the particular power of the museum as an ordering device. Instead of lulling him into a stupor with a succession of virtually identical spaces in which displayed objects appear as if there naturally, the changes of mood, emphasis and style keep him alert to the museum’s interpretative and normative power and the ideology-driven selectiveness of displays. Stüler’s fragmentary narrative programme is a welcome reminder that such storylines are not objective and writ in stone but can date and lose validity with changing times and circumstances, making today’s history (with its claim to impartiality and objectiveness) tomorrow’s historicism. Chipperfield’s Neues Museum, with its layering of both the past and the contemporary, makes the visitor aware that history is not static but always, first of all, a reinterpretation through contemporary eyes, driven and inflected by current agendas. The works of art on display, Stüler’s programme and the traces of destruction and reconstruction are a constant reminder of this, bringing the past closer and making the visitor an active participant in its constitution. Here history has not been stilled but stays tantalisingly alive.

1 Maxwell Staniforth (translator), Marcus Aurelius Meditations, London: Penguin 1964, p. 72.

By Karsten Schubert
Neues Museum Berlin (2009)