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Is Germany's top museum foundation too big?

Torsten Landsberg db
July 9, 2020

It runs all Berlin state museums; its collection includes the Pergamon Altar and the Nefertiti Bust. But experts argue that the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is too cumbersome — and advise radical changes.

Berlin's Museum Island at sunrise
Image: imago images/Panthermedia

It is one of the largest cultural organizations in the world: The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, SPK) manages all of Berlin's state-run museums — including 15 collections in 19 locations, the Berlin State Library with two locations, and different archives and research institutes. From the reconstructed Berlin City Palace to the iconic Nefertiti bust, its collection includes an incredible number of cultural treasures.  Nearly 4.2 million visitors flocked to the foundation's museums in 2019.

Germany's largest cultural institution was established in 1957 to bring together the archives, collections and art treasures scattered across the country and to preserve Prussia's cultural assets. Originally, the organization was earmarked for restructuring, should West and East Germany ever be reunited. When the time came in 1990, however, merging what were previously separate collections took priority over the creation of a new structure. The foundation continued to grow, for instance with the addition of the Berlin Museum Island complex.

The foundation headed by Hermann Parzinger currently has a total of 2,000 employees.

Nefertiti: Egypt's most beautiful face

Too big, too slow

Its size and centralized structure make the foundation cumbersome, however. Decisions take too long and the flexibility of the individual institutions is practically non-existent. The problems are not new, which is why the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters, commissioned the government's advisory council of science and humanities two years ago to evaluate the umbrella organization.

Three years ago in their coalition agreement, the German government coalition partners stipulated the foundation should be "structurally adapted to the requirements of a modern cultural institution with international appeal." The WR, founded in the same year as the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, advises the government and the German states on structural developments in science, research and at the universities.

The study was published on July 13, though various media had already reported on its results. The foundation has grown too cumbersome, the study reportedly finds; it is in danger of losing touch with current developments and debates — in other words, left straggling behind on the international stage. The study advises dissolving the current structure of the federal and state-funded SPK. To make matters worse, the central administration's tight-fisted budget allocations have resulted in leaking roofs and mildew in some buildings, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Autonomous institutions with budgets of their own

Instead of a single large umbrella organization, the study suggests creating four independent organizations: one for the State Museums, including the Institute for Music Research, one for the State Library, one for the Secret State Archives and one for the Ibero-American Institute. The institutions would be run autonomously and — unlike under the current system — they would manage their own staff and budgets, a move designed to give the institutions the chance to push digitization and provenance research.

The study also suggests changes in funding. The federal government would then pay for the State Library, State Archives and Ibero-American Institute. The federal government and the state of Berlin would jointly finance the State Museums, while Germany's remaining states, whose contributions had shrunk in recent years anyway, would no longer foot any bills, nor would they have a say in the decision-making process. Hopes are that this would further streamline the decision-making process.

"It may not be possible to implement all of the recommendations as they stand," Grütters said. Unwilling to comment on details until the advisory council has adopted the report, Grütters nevertheless said she sees "a great openness and willingness on the part of all those involved to face well-founded, even far-reaching change." The study is to be presented on July 13.