An Architectual Masterpiece
In October 2009 the Neue Museum (New Museum) on Berlin’s Museum Island finally opened its doors again, after being left in ruins by the war and slumbering like a Sleeping Beauty in the heart of the city for 60 years
The reopening of this magnificent building gained world-wide attention. Since then, thousands of visitors have been enthralled by its famous collections and spectacular architecture.
Only eleven years earlier, the happy father, Frederick William III, had had the Alte Museum (Old Museum) built as Prussia’s first museum building. But space very quickly ran out for housing the royal collections. A new museum was needed, and at the same time a plan for the whole of the island in the Spree, which the Prussian king wanted to “transform into a sanctuary for art and the sciences”.
In 1841 the architect Friedrich August Stüler (1800–1865), a disciple of Friedrich Schinkel, was commissioned to plan the new museum.
Stüler did his job well. With great inventiveness and his finger on the pulse of the times he managed to give expression to the special educational role of the Neue Museum.
The rooms in the Neue Museum, which was built between 1843 and 1855, were filled with objects from the various different collections from the Royal Museums in Berlin.
By this the museum became a walk-through compendium of cultures from the Stone Age right up to the Modern Era.
In the monumental staircae, visitors were introduced to this guiding idea.
Impressive frescos by Wilhelm von Kaulbach showed the epochs of world history from the destruction of the Tower of Babel to ancient Greek philosophers up to the Reformation.
The highest staircase landing was crowned by a copy of the Porch of the Caryatids from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens.
On the lower walls of the staircase, plaster casts of temple reliefs from the Parthenon and the Hephaestus temple in Athens provided insights into the world view of the Greeks.
The museum’s exhibition rooms, too, were magnificently ornamented, and were given names such as ‘Egyptian Courtyard‘, ‘Mediaeval Room’ and ‘Patriotic Room’.
Their wall paintings were highly decorative while giving visitors a picture of the historical background to the exhibits.
To make light-weight construction possible, instead of heavy sandstone sculptures relatively light zinc castings painted in sandstone colour were used.
The delicate iron constructions in the rooms of the Kunstkammer (Art Chamber) on the third floor are a dematerialised variant of the arches on the lower floors.
The industrial nature of the construction of the Neue Museum required special technical knowledge. A construction manager needed to be brought in “for the special management of the building work“. At the time, Carl Wilhelm Hoffmann was one of the most capable members of the new profession of construction engineer.
The wounds of the past remain visible in the walls of the building.
The opulence of late Classicism and Historicism enters into a thrilling dialogue with Chipperfield’s strict formal language.
The Egyptian-themed painted ceiling in the Mythological Room suggests the topic of ‘Egyptomania – Egyptology‘.
The Library of Antiquity has its fitting home in the Nubian Room.
This concept is especially clear in the base level of the museum, where a harmonious overall composition introduces visitors to the theme of the Egyptian Courtyard, ‘Journey into the Afterlife‘.
The theme of the Greek Courtyard, ‘World Order‘, is emphasised in the elevated Schievelbein fries (1849–51), which depicts the flight of the people of Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted.
So an idea has already come to fruition in the Neue Museum which will in future include and link four museums on Museum Island in Berlin – the Archäologische Promenade, a continuous sequence of rooms illustrating the great themes of human history.
This idea, already present in the building of the Neue Museum in the 19th century, is part of the Masterplan for the refurbishment of Museum Island by 2025–26.
The reopening of the Neue Museum is the masterful culmination of an important stage in this plan.