Berlin: Finding the old in the Neues Museum

October 15, 2016

Some museums are good, and others can be disappointing. Berlin, on the other hand, offers some of the finest museums on Earth, all within a 1 km radius. Museum Island offers five world-class museums and was listed in 1999 as a World Heritage Site.  This site lies right at the heart of Berlin, next door to the cathedral and a short walk from the red city hall.  The museums are distinctive both for their architecture (dating from 1824 to 1930) and their amazing collections.

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The Alte Nationalgalerie stairs reminded me of the ones from the Tower of Fragrance of Buddha.

I wasn’t sure which museum I should visit, at first.  Then I thought back to my youth, when I would feel real excitement in entering the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The galleries of ancient art always stirred me. People who lived in an impossibly remote time and place had created these powerful objects! I saw that the Neues Museum had a special emphasis on Egyptian art, and I immediately felt compelled to visit.  In retrospect, I learned that the Pergamon draws the largest crowds year after year; its website shows displays that would have knocked my socks off!  The Neues (new) Museum, by the way, is no spring chicken.  It opened its doors in 1855, while the Altes (old) Museum was open to the public in 1830.

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The central stairwell of the rebuilt Neues Museum

Like much of Berlin, the museum suffered horribly in World War II, with bombardments incinerating the central stairway along with several frescoes.  Bombs destroyed the northwest wing and damaged the southwest.  For decades, the building languished in that condition, with undamaged parts used only for storage by other museums.  After the reunification of Germany, however, the museum reconstruction planning began in 1997, with the project completed in 2009.  The new entry hall to the museum was postponed due to its 60 million Euro cost.  As a consequence, I needed to purchase my 12 Euro ticket for entry at a shipping container (!) across the plaza from its entry door.

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This beautiful vault was as impressive as its contents.

After dropping off my backpack and jacket, I headed upstairs to the Berlin Papyrus Collection.  I’m a bit of a sucker for ancient documents, probably stemming from when I read George Ifrah’s From One to Zero.  The collection (which allows no photographs) presents its documents in sliding trays within a glass case.  Readers can select which set of thematically-grouped objects they want to see.  The display builds some suspense, because the trays do not move very quickly into view.  I gasped to see a bit of Gilgamesh from cuneiform on a tablet.  It was enlightening to see just how many languages have been used broadly in Egypt from ancient to modern times (such as hieratic and demotic types).

As I walked through the museum, I was frequently reminded of the destruction from which it was rescued.  The ceiling of one hall, for example, was a grid of domes, originally with a mosaic at the center of each.  Only some of the mosaics were in place, though, since the original art had been destroyed.  When I looked down from one floor to the one below, though, I could see beautiful frescoes that had survived the mid-20th century destruction.

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Some nineteenth century art lives on!

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That’s a full-sized human on the other side!

The Time Machine exhibit really drew me into the ancient world.  The box was essentially a very large-screen video player that portrayed typical lives of humans during the paleolithic I through bronze ages.  One of the most dramatic artifacts housed in the museum figured into that progression.  The Gold Hat is a really astounding sight.  It is believed to date from around 1000 B.C.  Naturally, the layer of gold is pretty thin, but one still shudders to think how difficult it would have been to assemble this much gold in one place in the ancient world!  The pattern of circles on the hat is not just ornamental; the patterns of dots is useful in predicting holidays based on both lunar and solar years (Easter / Passover is an example of a holiday that is based in the lunar year; that is why the date changes on the Gregorian calendar each year).  The other displays of bronze-age artifacts were pretty shocking to me.  I had no idea that so many weapons from this era existed in the whole world, let alone a single museum.  I also liked the display of the “Lurs” horns.  The sound recording of a modern trumpeter playing a replica was deeply unsettling!

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This kingly figure caught my eye.

Of course, the museum is most well known for its Egyptian relics.  I would love, at this point, to show you the famed bust of Nefertiti housed at the museum, but no photos of her were allowed.  I did shoot a photo of the smaller replica that had been made for the blind, though!  Instead, I will show you a snapshot of either Akhenaten or Tutankhamen, dating from the New Kingdom, 18th dynasty.  I loved the detail that the artist carved in this shape.  What lovely work with paints and gilding!

Like many others, I found the mummy exhibits really interesting.  At the same time, I felt quite awkward staring at them.  One casing had a painting of the deceased person from her life.  It was hard not to feel somewhat ghoulish in gawking at the box that had held her body as an object of art.

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Why take a brick when you can take the wall?

I think of the Pergamon Museum as being home to gargantuan displays, but the Neues Museum can hold its own.  What became clear to me was that archaeologists had imported entire sites from Egypt to Berlin.  The burial chamber of Methen (Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty ~2575 BC) is a fine example of this practice.  I was several feet back from this wall to get it all in shot.  The person to the left of the shot was around twenty feet away from me.

The peculiar irony of this swiping of ancient artifacts is that several exhibits throughout the museum noted the absence of key relics.  At the end of World War II, after all, the Russians had taken several objects home with them that had originally resided in the museum.  In effect, the Germans expropriated historical objects from Egypt only to have them expropriated by Russians.

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One of these is a showman, and the other is a scientist. Wait, did I get that reversed?

As the time for closing arrived at the museum, I encountered one final surprise.  I had seen a show on American public broadcasting about Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy man who had made fantastic claims about having located Priam’s Troy from the Iliad.  The Neues Museum displays many of those artifacts in their galleries (in some cases they were replicas– see the note above about the Russians).  I lingered by his bust until I spotted a tourist willing to capture a photo of the two of us.

The Neues Museum may not have been the most famous site on Museum Island, but it was a perfect fit for how I wanted to spend my first afternoon in Berlin.  What a nice surprise!

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