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Berlin’s museums offer an island of culture

Photo By: Thomas Wolf/SPecial to the Town Crier
Photo Thomas Wolf/Special To The Town Crier

Museum Island on the River Spree in central Berlin is home to five museums that offer a treasure trove of art and artifacts.

The German capital of Berlin, known primarily for its cabarets and nightlife, is more than just a party animal. It’s also the domesticated home to several world-class museums.

Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, houses five buildings on an island on River Spree in central Berlin that merit a visit.

Los Altos Hills resident Cathie Perga, an inveterate traveler who loves museums, has visited India, Belgium, Cairo, Gaziantepe, Izmir and Istanbul, among others places. She loves to immerse herself in history.

Perga, a widow, said that when her husband was alive, she would suggest a trip and it “would just happen.”

“It’s hard to find someone” with that kind of travel chemistry, she lamented.

She jumped at the chance to travel to Berlin in February with her daughter and son-in-law. They found comfortable accommodations for 80 euros a night through Airbnb (www.airbnb.com), a website that matches vacationers with private homes and rooms.

Perga said their kitchen was compact but efficient, in the European style, but “it had all that I needed.” She added that she would recommend the Airbnb option to anyone.

“It was close to where (Chancellor) Angela Merkel lives, too,” she said.

During the day, the group wandered through Berlin’s museums. From the bust of Queen Nefertiti at the Neues Museum to the Altar of Zeus at the Pergamon Museum, everything seemed an amazing treasure, Perga said.

The five treasures of Museum Island

• King Friedrich Wilhelm III ordered the Altes Museum (Old Museum) built to house the royal art collection. He thought that cultural education should be available to the public, too, and not just to royalty. The architect, Karl Schinkel, designed the neoclassical public museum. The first dedicated museum building in Berlin, it opened in 1830.

The Altes Museum resembles the Stoa in Athens because King Wilhelm IV underscored a classical influence. Since 1904, the museum has housed Germany’s entire classical antiquities collection.

Luise Henriette of Nassau, Friedrich Wilhelm’s Dutch wife, developed the museum’s adjacent Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden) in the 16th century. With help from a landscape gardener, she turned it into a formal yard with fountains and paths. After German reunification in 1990, officials commissioned a landscape designer to restore the Lustgarten in the spirit of the original park.

• The Neues Museum (New Museum) took a long time to build – from 1843 to 1855. It closed in 1939 at the beginning of World War II, heavily damaged in the bombing of Berlin. During the Cold War, the museum divided its inventory between East and West Germany.

English architect David Chipperfield oversaw the restoration of the original edifice, and it finally opened to visitors again in 2009.

The colorful and most famous bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti is housed at the Neues Museum, which boasts extensive prehistory, early history and Egyptian collections.

• The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), opened in 1876, stores the largest assortment of 19th-century paintings and sculptures in Germany, as well as the works of a few French Impressionists. The museum houses masterpieces by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, Adolph Menzel, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Auguste Rodin.

Friedrich August Stüler designed the original building, shaped like a Greco-Roman temple. The building, heavily damaged in Allied air raids during World War II, underwent an extensive renovation between 1998 and 2001.

• Originally named the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in 1904 in honor of Emperor Friedrich III, the Bode Museum was renamed for its first curator, Wilhelm von Bode, in 1956.

Closed for renovations from 1997 through 2006, the Bode’s extensive European sculpture collection is unparalleled. It includes Coptic Egyptian and Byzantine art, as well as pieces from the Orient, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The Bode also possesses one of the world’s most comprehensive coin and medals collections, with more than 500,000 items dating from the seventh century B.C.

• The final museum in the complex, built 1910-1930, the Pergamon Museum, remains the focus of some controversy between Germany and Turkey over who owns the art. Turks claim that some important artifacts should be returned to them because they were discovered in Turkey.

German engineer Carl Humann noticed ancient ruins being used as a marble quarry during a visit to Pergamon, Turkey, in 1878. He immediately asked for permission to excavate and unearthed the Altar of Zeus, a masterpiece of Hellenistic art created in 2 B.C. Archaeologists also uncovered the Market Gate of Miletus, a colossal two-story monument believed to have been built under Emperor Hadrian’s rule.

Both items were shipped to Germany and reconstructed for the Pergamon Museum. The museum is also home to the enormous Ishtar Gate of Babylon.

For more information, visit whc.unesco.org/en/list/896.

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