Once a Palace, Now a Museum

The History of the Building

Over 250 years ago, Frederick the Great built the Palais Barberini on the old market square, Alter Markt, in the historic center of Potsdam. The Baroque building, which the citizens of Potsdam referred to as a “palace” well into the twentieth century, had an eventful history—from a building used for housing and cultural events to one serving municipal administrative functions until it was destroyed at the end of World War II.

Old market with city hall, obelisk and Palazzo Barberini (1775) by Andreas Ludwig KrügerMuseum Barberini

The Barberini Palace: A Royal Idea

The Barberini Palace was built in 1771–72 under Frederick the Great as a grand townhouse in close proximity to the City Palace or Stadtschloss. Along with the St. Nicholas Church and the Old City Hall, this ensemble on the old market square, Alter Markt, was long the centerpiece of the royal seat of the Prussian kings.

Designed by the architects Georg Christian Unger and Carl von Gontard, the palace was modeled after the Baroque Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

Palazzo Barberini, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1758/1759, From the collection of: Museum Barberini
Palais Barberini, Andreas Ludwig Krüger, 1779, From the collection of: Museum Barberini
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Barberini Palace (28.10.1940) by Städtische Lichtbildstelle PotsdamMuseum Barberini

A House for the Citizens

The building was modified and remodeled in the mid-nineteenth century under King Frederick William IV. Two wings on the backside created new living spaces, and both upper floors contained stately rooms that were intended for use by cultural institutions in Potsdam.

Palast Barberini und Stadtschloss (um 1940) by Alfred von LoebensteinMuseum Barberini

Since the mid-nineteenth century the Palais Barberini on the banks of the river Havel provided centrally located housing for the people of Potsdam as well as a stage for public life, art, and culture.

In addition to many exhibitions, art lotteries, and readings, great artists such as Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein, and Wilhelm Furtwängler gave concerts here. Later, even films were shown here in the city’s first cinema, Clou Potsdams. Until well into World War II, there was a library here, as well as a youth hostel and a registry office for civil unions.

Saal im Palais Barberini, um 1907, From the collection of: Museum Barberini
Film Program of Lichtspiele at Palast Barberini, 1910, From the collection of: Museum Barberini
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Alter Markt (1945/1946) by Hans WeberMuseum Barberini

During an air strike by the British Royal Air Force on the city center of Potsdam on April 14, 1945—the so-called “Night of Potsdam”—the Palais Barberini was almost completely destroyed. Air-raid shelters with pallets had been installed in the rear east wing during previous years of the war. Trainees from the city government used these spaces for nightly civil air defense.

During the GDR era the site was used as a park and a parking lot. In 1989, still under the SED government, construction of a municipal theater began. Following the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the shell of the theater was demolished and a temporary theater that was clad in aluminum siding and known as the “can” was built in 1991. The temporary theater continued to be used until 2006.

Alter Markt, Klaus Lehnartz, 1974, From the collection of: Museum Barberini
Alter Markt, Klaus Lehnartz, Mai 1985, From the collection of: Museum Barberini
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Construction of the Columned Hall, Museum Barberini (2015) by Stefan MüllerMuseum Barberini

Reconstruction of Potsdam’s Historic Center

In 2005 it was decided that the historic center of Potsdam would be reconstructed to recreate a square that was once considered one of the most magnificent ones in Europe.

Reconstruction as Museum Barberini, interior view (2015) by Stefan MüllerMuseum Barberini

As part of the plan, the Palais Barberini, one of the characteristic buildings of Potsdam, was to be reconstructed as close to its original form as possible. In addition to the façade, the floorplan, proportions, and details such as the portico were to correspond to the design of the earlier building.

In a short period of construction lasting from 2013 to 2016, the museum that was designed by the architects Hilmer & Sattler und Albrecht, was built to the most modern specifications. The project was initiated and made possible by the Hasso Plattner Foundation.

Museum Barberini, Außenansicht (2019) by Lukas SpörlMuseum Barberini

The Museum Barberini

Since the building was reconstructed in 2017, the Museum Barberini, through its art exhibitions on Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt or Gerhard Richter, returns the site to its original purpose as a venue for culture.

Hasso Plattner Collection, exhibition view (2020) by David von BeckerMuseum Barberini

In addition to its special exhibitions, the Museum Barberini showcases the extensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings of the museum’s founder, Hasso Plattner, including masterpieces by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Gustave Caillebotte, and Paul Signac. 

Credits: Story

We would like to thank the Potsdam Museum - Forum for Art and History and the Potsdam City Archive for their kind permission to use historical pictures.

It has not proven possible to locate or to contact copyright holders in a few instances. Of course, legitimate claims will be satisfied in the framework of the usual arrangements.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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