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Culture

Berlin's Rich Museum Landscape to Get Facelift

Berlin’s historic museum ensemble, the Museum Island, comes a step closer to regaining its former glory as work begins to rebuild the Neues Museum 60 years after it was badly damaged in World War II.

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A last glimpse of the Neues Museum before it closes for restoration work for the next five years.

Berlin’s famous group of five museums in the historic city center, battered by World War II and ignored during the Cold War, is getting a further facelift.

At a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday the president of the Prussian Cultural Foundation, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, announced that restoration work would begin on the Neues Museum (New Museum), a spectacular exhibition hall built by Friedrich August Stüler between 1843 and 1855 and partially destroyed during World War II. "Today marks the end of World War II on the Museumsinsel," Berlin museum director Peter-Klaus Schuster declared.

The Museumsinsel (Museum Island) is an ensemble of five museum buildings located on an island in the Spree River in central Berlin. The buildings fell into disrepair after being strafed and bombed during World War II. The island was situated in communist East Berlin and largely neglected until after German unification in 1990.

The Neues Museum is the third structure on the Museuminsel to get a much-needed touch-up. The Old National Gallery reopened in December 2001, and the neo-Baroque Bode Museum, which is still being restored, is pegged to open in 2005.

Touching up an architectural treasure

Architect David Chipperfield and restorer Julian Harrap were commissioned to rebuild the Neues Museum at an estimated cost of €233 million ($270 million). The British duo reportedly aims to avoid a coarse juxtaposition of old and new as well as to steer away from an exact reconstruction of the original building.

Instead, they plan to build upon the existing historical core of the museum, preserve the remains of its splendid wall and ceiling frescoes and give it a modern finish. "The restoration work, which is finally beginning, will succeed in securing one of the most fantastic museum buildings of the 19th century and opening it up for future use," Government Commissioner for Cultural and Media Affairs Christina Weiss said on Tuesday.

Königin Nofretete

Queen Nefertiti

Work is expected to be completed by 2008, after which the Neues Museum will house the Egyptian Museum -- with its famous bust of Queen Nefertiti -- the Museum for Prehistoric and Early History and an extensive antique collection.

Project plagued by financial woes

In 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Museuminsel a world heritage site and a cultural treasure that had an irreplaceable value for humanity as a whole. In the same year, the Berlin Senate decided on a final master plan for the restoration of the crumbling building ensemble, after years of long and heated debate.

But, the city of Berlin's financial misery translated into financial problems for restoring the island. Last year Chancellor Schröder stepped in, and the federal government took over full financial responsibility for the yearly €100 million construction costs, 50 percent of which Berlin had been footing.

The project’s financial future, however, is still far from certain. The Prussian Cultural Foundation, which manages the Museumsinsel, still has only 80 percent of the originally planned sum at its disposal.

Living history

Originally, the Museumsinsel started to take shape when Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel completed the Altes Museum (Old Museum) in 1823 against the backdrop of the Lustgarten, a sprawling green park. At the time Schinkel could hardly have dreamt that his building, with its landmark domed rotunda, would lay the foundation for an entire museum landscape.

For it was Schinkel’s building that later inspired Prussian King Frederick William IV to sketch his vision of a "free room for art and science" that would stretch up to the northernmost tip of the Spree Island. He drew on the Acropolis and Roman palaces with their massive columns and temples for his plans. Based on the Prussian king’s design, Schinkel’s disciple Friedrich August Schüler developed a complete concept for the area in 1841 -- the first master plan for the Museumsinsel.

A century later, that vision was realized with the addition of the Neues Museum and the Old National Gallery, the Bode Museum with its imposing dome at the tip of the island and finally the neoclassical three-winged coliseum of the Pergamon Museum in the center.

Even today, the Museumsinsel isn’t just home to priceless works of art, but its architecture makes it one of the most picturesque building ensembles in Berlin’s historic center.

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