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Museum Makeover

Kyle James
October 17, 2006

The latest addition to Berlin's cultural landscape, the Bode Museum, is to reopen its doors after a six-year makeover. The museum's domed building, which juts out into the Spree River, is a work of art in itself.

The Bode Museum illuminated at night
The Bode Museum is lit up at nightImage: dpa

When on Oct. 18, 102 years ago, Emperor Wilhelm II officially opened the Bode Museum -- then called the Kaiser Friedrich Museum -- it was a grey, rainy day in Berlin.

"The color on that day came from the uniforms, cassocks and medals," said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, head of the Prussian Culture Foundation.

On Tuesday, however, when journalists were invited into the freshly refurbished neoclassical structure on the tip of Berlin's famous Museum Island, sunshine poured through the building's windows and skylights -- perfect illumination for the painstaking, 162-million-euro ($203 million) renovation that has created a new home for Berlin's sculpture collection, along with treasures of the Byzantine era and coins from antiquity to the present day.

"After 67 years, after the years of war, evacuation, destruction and the long years of division, we can finally display the richness of our treasures," said Lehmann.


Bode-Museum in Berlin Ausstellung
Reliquary, German, from around 1300Image: DW

While the museum's collections may be less spectacular than the neighboring Pergamon Museum, with its Greek and Babylonian star attractions, the Bode does contain important collections of Christian art, including one of the world's best collections of Coptic art.

The museum's sculpture collection comprises some 1,700 pieces, dating from the early medieval period to the end of the 18th century. According to the Bode's chief sculpture restorer, Bodo Buczynski, the museum has one of the best collections of 16th - 18th century Italian sculpture north of the Alps.

The museum's Byzantine era (330 - 1453 CE) collection, the only of its kind in Germany, has some 300 objects which originate largely from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) as well as Egypt, Russia, Greece and the Balkans.

Bode-Museum in Berlin Münzen
The Bode's coin collectionImage: DW

The numismatics collection has a total of 500,000 objects, recording a history of coinage from the 6th century BCE to the common European currency, the euro, of the 21st century. Some 4,000 coins and medals will be on display.

"Palace" on the Island

While the Museum Island's other treasure houses are designed to look like Greek temples, the Bode Museum is neoclassical, with two dramatic cupolas, looking more like a Prussian palace than a home for art. That came in for some criticism at its first opening.

Entering the museum, one is indeed struck by its grandeur, which evokes an era of emperors and kings with its huge statue of Emperor Friedrich I on horseback under a large cupola and amid marble columns and grand, sweeping staircases.

Bode-Museum in Berlin Kombo
Image: AP

Founding curator Wilhelm von Bode, after whom the museum was renamed in 1956, designed a series of "period rooms," which were conceived to show the artwork from different eras in their contexts. Today's curators have stayed with that idea, although they have pared down the presentation, made it less decorative and "given the sculptures a chance to breathe," according to Lehmann.

With the exhibition rooms' high ceilings, more modest ornamentation, simplified layout, and skylights and windows (some of which look out onto the Spree River), the curators have succeeded in giving the visitor a sense of space and calm.

Bode-Museum in Berlin Gobelinsaal
Journalists look at paintings as they walk in the museum's Gobelin HallImage: AP

Many of the museum's original features have been left intact, including wall fountains, moldings and reliefs. But a host of new technological features have also been added, such as ultraviolet filters to screen out the damaging effects of the sun's rays and computer touch-screen terminals that provide detailed information on the collection and indicate how to navigate the museum.

Nameplates besides the artworks include English translations of the works' titles, although other information is only in German.

Part of Museum Island "master plan"

The museum was damaged in World War II and, after the war, was located in the communist sector. The East Berlin government considered demolishing the building at one time. Although some repairs were made over the years, this is the first major modernization.

Bode-Museum in Berlin Spree
The museum is directly on the Spree RiverImage: DW

The restoration is part of the overall revamp of Berlin's museum island complex -- named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO -- estimated to cost 1.2 billion euros ($1.5 billion). The first step was the renovation of the Alte Nationalgalerie in 2001. The Bode is the second museum on the island to get a new lease on life. The Altes Museum and Neues Museum will also be refurbished and the project will climax with the renovation of the Pergamon, with its one-of-a-kind collection of Greek and Babylonian structures.

Some have criticized the fact that so much money is being poured into Berlin's museums while other collections around the country are struggling for funding. But Germany's culture minister has defended the decision to invest heavily in culture for the capital.

"The support of the cultural representation of Berlin is and will remain one of the most important missions of federal cultural policy," he said in a statement. "This support is more than a recognition of tradition and history, it is a commitment to Germany as a nation of culture and to the global cultural heritage of the Museum Island in the heart of the (capital) city."

The Bode Museum opens to the general public on Thursday.

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