At the northern tip of the Spreeinsel lies a museum quarter known as Museumsinsel (Museum Island), which was added during the nineteenth century by the Hohenzollerns and which really took off when German explorers and archeologists returned with bounty from the Middle East. Despite war losses and Soviet looting, some of the world’s finest museums reside here and they are becoming ever greater, thanks to a large-scale reorganization and remodelling that’s due for completion in 2015. Some sections will be temporarily closed as part of this process in the meantime. Covering any more than one of these museums in any depth in a day is a real challenge, so choose carefully before you set out – note too that you have to book a time to visit the Pergamon and Neues Museum at their ticket desks, so arrive early to ensure you can go at the time you want.
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The Altes Museum
Overlooking the lawns of the Lustgarten, a former parade ground, lies one of Berlin’s most striking Neoclassical buildings: Schinkel’s impressive Altes Museum with its 87-metre-high facade and Ionic colonnade. As host to the city’s classical antiquities collection, this is the place for fans of ancient Greek and Roman pottery and sculpture. Many are small works but nonetheless captivating, such as The Praying Boy, a lithe and delicate bronze sculpture from Rhodes dating back to 300 BC. The Vase of Euphronios, decorated with athletes in preparation, is among one of the finest surviving Greek vases in the world.
The Neues Museum
After decades on the move around Berlin, the city’s impressive Egyptian Collection moved back into its original home in the Neues Museum in 2009. Built in 1855, the museum was badly damaged in the war then extensively rebuilt and remodelled under British architect David Chipperfield. He took pains to preserve as many original features as possible, including fluted stone columns and battered faux-Egyptian ceiling frescoes, as well as adding a few tasteful features – like the huge central staircase – to replace irreparably damaged parts of the building.
The museum’s greatest prize is the 3300-year-old Bust of Queen Nefertiti, a treasure that’s become a city symbol. There’s no questioning its beauty – the queen has a perfect bone structure and gracefully sculpted lips – and the history of the piece is equally interesting. Created around 1350 BC, the bust probably never left the studio in Akhenaten in which it was created, acting as a mere model for other portraits of the queen (explaining why the left eye was never drawn in). When the studio was deserted, the bust was left, to be discovered some three thousand years later in 1912.
A bit of a comedown after all the Egyptian excitement below is the Early and Prehistory Collection in the museum attic, encompassing a mainly underwhelming collection of archeological discoveries from around Berlin.
The Alte Nationalgalerie
Tucked just behind the Neues Museum, the Neoclassical Alte Nationalgalerie is a grandiose interpretation of a Corinthian temple that houses a museum of European art that’s particularly strong on nineteenth-century German Romantics, like Liebermann, though it also has great works by Cézanne, Rodin, Monet and Degas.
The largest of the Museum Island museums, the massive Pergamonmuseum was built in the early twentieth century in the style of a Babylonian temple, primarily to house the city’s vast Middle-Eastern treasures. Highlights include the Pergamon Altar – a huge structure dedicated to Zeus and Athena, dating from 180 to 160 BC, and depicting a furious battle between the gods and the giants – as well as the enormous, deep-blue-tiled Ishtar Gate, a sixth-century-BC processional way from Babylon. The collection also numbers hundreds of other fascinating smaller items from as far back as 2000 BC.
The stocky, neo-Baroque Bode-Museum at the northern tip of Museum Island suffered such heavy World War II damage that it was scheduled for demolition, until Berliners protested in the streets. Subsequent waves of renovation have resulted in opulent interiors that form a seamless backdrop for one of Europe’s most impressive sculpture collections, which spans the third to the nineteenth centuries. A particular strength is the early Italian Renaissance, though the German collection is equally authoritative. Also in the building is a solid collection of Byzantine art, notably early Christian religious items; ornamental Roman sarcophagi and several intricate mosaics and ivory carvings; and around half a million coins of the city’s Numismatic Collection.