Vestibule, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David ChipperfieldNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Education for all!
The joy and pride of Frederick William IV when he opened the Neue Museum on Museum Island in 1855 is proclaimed in letters of gold: MUSEUM A PATRE BEATISSIMO CONDITUM AMPLIAVIT FILIUS MDCCCLV – ‘In 1855 the museum founded by the happiest of fathers was expanded by the son’.
View of the Neues Museum, 1930 (1843/1855) by Friedrich August StülerNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Transit to the Altes Museum, Neues Museum, 1934 (1843/1855) by Friedrich August Stüler a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Main Stairs, Neues Museum, Berlin, 1910 (1843/1855) by Friedrich August Stüler a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Eyptian Courtyard, Neues Museum, Berlin, 1920 (1843/1855) by Friedrich August Stüler a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Bowand tendon support, Construction and Decoration in the Nubian Room, Neues Museum, Berlin (1843/1855) by C.E. Weber (Stich)Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
State of the Art
Museum also made good use of technology to impress contemporaries. With the
advance of industrialisation, new processes were becoming possible and were
first used on a grand scale here.
importantly for the history of construction technology the museum made use of
various innovative iron constructions concealed just behind its simple facade.
These included the cast iron bowstring trusses bearing the load of the wide
span of the ceilings so that they did not need supporting columns. But while
Stüler concealed the construction elements behind the panelling, the new way of
building was in evidence everywhere.
To make light-weight construction possible, instead of heavy sandstone sculptures relatively light zinc castings painted in sandstone colour were used.
Cast iron bowstring trusses in the Nubian Room (1850s)Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Section Southern Wing, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/1855) by C.E. Weber (Stich)Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
War and destruction
Between 1943 and 1945 during the Second World War the Neue Museum suffered heavy damage from Allied bombing. Several areas were completely destroyed. The collections held in the Neue Museum had already been relocated and secured in 1939.
After the war they were split up among the various Berlin museums all over the city. All that was left of the building itself was a ruin. Exposed to the elements, it continued to decay over the decades.
With loving attention to detail
The New Museum was not rebuilt until it became part of the Master Plan for the Museum Island in 2003 after the Reunification of Germany. The work was a Herculean task, but was masterfully achieved by the architect David Chipperfield and his team, following the concept of complementary recreation jointly developed with the restoration architect Julian Harrap. More than 200 specialists were brought in to make the run-down building into an attractive whole again. The firm had been awarded the commission after successfully competing for it in 1997.
The allure of imperfection
David Chipperfield and his team have magnificently embedded the museum ruins in the architectural language of our time, while complying with strict conservation requirements. Chipperfield’s philosophy of ‘gentle building evolution‘ respects the historic structure of the building and its furnishings, so that instead of the destroyed building being rebuilt, what has been created is a building with the original historic proportions but using new materials and simple forms.
Main Stairs with historical plaster casts, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David Chipperfield a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Dialogue with the collections
Once the Neue Museum was reopened in 2009, its collections could be returned. The Ägyptische Museum und Papyrussammlung (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection) share its 8,000 square metres of display space with the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History) and parts of the Antikensammlung (Collection of Antiquities). Preserved as an archaeological monument from the 19th century, the building provides alluring backgrounds for the display concepts for the collections.
Mythological Room, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David ChipperfieldNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The Egyptian-themed painted ceiling in the Mythological Room suggests the topic of ‘Egyptomania – Egyptology‘.
Library of the Ancient Wold, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David Chipperfield a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The Library of Antiquity has its fitting home in the Nubian Room.
Beyond borders and ages
The New Museum leads its visitors through the development of prehistoric and early cultures from the Middle East to the Atlantic, from North Africa to Scandinavia. Content-based lines of view show the interactions between cultures, while presentations juxtaposing objects from various different collections illuminate themes that have moved human beings over the millennia.
Egyptian Courtyard, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David Chipperfield a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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‘.
Greek Courtyard, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Hermann Schievelbein / Friedrich August Stüler / David Chipperfield a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Vestiges of vanished cultures are displayed here: Ancient Egyptian reliefs from the Sahure Temple's pyramid complex deal with gaining control over chaos. The remains of the original wall plaster with perforations from shell splinters are a reminder of the thread to the ordered world, which still exists today.
Greek courtyard, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David ChipperfieldNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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.
Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Prestel
Concept / Editing: Jutta Dette
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz