'Island life' - a letter to the editorThe Architectural ReviewDavid Chipperfield12.2014Museum Island Masterplan

David Chipperfield writes a letter to the editor regarding an article on the Museum Island in Berlin published byThe Architectural Review.

'Island life' - a letter to the editor

Your article about Berlin's museum island left me a bit confused.

I fully understand the general position of the article expressing a concern about the status of museum infrastructure and about how large museums might handle increasing visitor numbers. Indeed I share Adam Sharr's concerns. This is an interesting discussion and one that is continually rehearsed and debated in every museum.

I'm not sure what Adam Sharr adds to this debate by his rather superficial and factually incorrect article. Given the project does not yet exist it may have been useful if Adam Sharr had looked more thoroughly at the proposals before fitting his argument into the project.

Let me list the inaccuracies: the reconstruction of the former Schloss is not part of the Museum Island; the new museum he refers to is not 200 metres further south but north; there were no 'larger foyers designed', indeed the Neues Museum has the same entrance hall as when it was built, as does the Bode Museum, the Altes museum never had a foyer and in practical terms suffers because of this, during the GDR period a rather unconvincing wind lobby was added to the Pergamon Museum. There has been no adding of offices or conservation studios (though I don't see the harm in such necessities) in fact new facilities have been built on the other side of the canal.

I'm not sure how the James Simon gallery "demonstrates a radical extension of these trajectories". In fact the existing collection of museums is totally lacking in visitor infrastructure, the Neues Museum has one small cafe seating approximately 66 people and a bookshop approximately 50 m2.The Altes Museum has one small bookshop and a small cafe on the upstairs balcony. I suggest that Adam Sharr compares this provision with those of the Tate, National Gallery or British Museum. In fact the cafe and bookshop at Turner Contemporary in Margate are comparable sizes to those of the Neues Museum.

The fact that the five museums of the museum island have little or no infrastructure and did not anticipate the growth of visitor numbers has in some way stimulated the need for the James Simon gallery, which will indeed contain a shop and a restaurant.

While I share Adam Sharr's concern for the tendency for museums to be concerned about visitor numbers and be rather obsessed with the income making facilities of shop, cafe and events, I'm afraid this isn't a German issue, indeed they are charmingly old fashioned in this department, a consequence of state funding.

The tunnels that Adam Sharr refers to are in fact links between the basement exhibition areas of the different museums. The archaeological collections suffer by being split between different buildings, it was the curators who were desperate that the visitor should be able to see the different collections in different buildings in one visit not the marketing department.

All buildings can be entered separately as they have always been and the collections can be visited together as they always have been. (The article also overlooks the fact that the Altes Museum, Neues Museum and Pergamon were always connected, by bridges. We argued against their reinstatement as part of the Neues Museum rebuilding as this would have put the main visitor circulation through the most fragile spaces of the Neues Museum, preferring the links to be between the basements, now that we have removed storage and made new exhibition areas.) What Adam Sharr refers to as "outsize exhibits" in the Pergamon are in fact spectacular architectural elements that are connected to collections in both the Altes Museum and Neues Museum. The curators wish that you might see the Egyptian temple in the Pergamon and the Egyptian collection in the Neues Museum and the same for the Greek and Roman architecture in the Pergamon and the collections in the Altes Museum. I don't see anything cynical in this idea.

The James Simon gallery does indeed give some 'visitor orientation' but its major role, so simply dismissed by the article’s concern to make a point, is to provide temporary exhibition space that doesn't exist on the museum island, and an auditorium. These vital facilities are demanded to ensure the more dynamic life of the museums, ensuring a changing program of exhibition and events. This initiative is a concern for all major, national museums that become clear destinations for tourists but increasingly ignored by 'locals'. Programming of lectures and changing exhibitions is a useful tool that has been convincingly used in London at the National Gallery and the British Museum.

The article correctly raises the subject of how museums, especially what we might call the great ones, deal with their greatness. It is an important subject and I do not want to discourage Adam Sharr from his topic, however I think he should look closer to home as we leave our German cousins well behind in this field.

David Chipperfield
The Architectural Review December 2014