The Foundation is Building

01.12.2018The Foundation is Building

Berlin’s cityscape is marked by numerous construction projects. But why is the Stiftung Preussische Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, SPK) building? Alongside the maintenance that is necessary for historic buildings, consolidating the collections after German reunification plays an important role here. One thing is clear: SPK is not building just for the sake of building.

By Hermann Parzinger

Development of Berlin’s museum landscape

The main attraction of Berlin’s museums is still Museumsinsel (Museum Island) with its ensemble of historic buildings and outstanding collections. The Altes Museum is first in a line of royal Prussian museums. Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV had planned to make the island on Spree River a “sanctuary for art and science.” The opening of the Altes Museum in 1830 was followed by the Neues Museum, Nationalgalerie (National Gallery), Kaiser Friedrich Museum (today the Bode-Museum), and the Pergamonmuseum until 1930.

Hermann Parzinger beim Richtfest der James-Simon-Galerie
Hermann Parzinger beim Richtfest der James-Simon-Galerie © SPK/photothek.net/Michael Gottschalk

The buildings on Museumsinsel were heavily damaged during World War II. The museum collections suffered heavy losses and were torn apart when Germany was divided after the war. In East Berlin the museum buildings still existed but were heavily damaged. To a great extent, they were restored and used. In West Berlin the collections were first housed temporarily, since almost all of the museum buildings were located in the eastern part of the city. The archeological collections were housed in Charlottenburg. Earlier plans for a large museum complex in Dahlem were revived and implemented. In addition, a plan to build a new cultural center near Potsdamer Platz – today’s Kulturforum – was drawn up. The plan began to be realized when the Philharmonie was built in the 1960s. By 1990, the Neue Nationalgalerie, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library), Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts), Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung (State Institute for Music Research) with the Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Museum of Musical Instruments), the Kammermusiksaal (Chamber Music Hall), and the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) were built. Plans for building the Gemäldegalerie (Old Master Paintings) had also progressed by this time.

The situation in 1990

German reunification provided an opportunity to reunite the divided collections as well – under the roof of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz. To realize its desire to return the collections to the houses that had been built for them, the Foundation was faced with the task of the century, and it is still relevant today. On the one hand, the buildings in the eastern and western parts of the city were in varying conditions and a long-term development plan was required. On the other hand, new buildings had to be planned and built since, despite the many losses they suffered, the collections had grown since World War II.

The top priority was Museumsinsel: the intention was to return it to its function as the hub of Berlin’s museum landscape and make its collections containing the art and cultural history of Europe and the Near East from antiquity to the 19th century accessible. This unique ensemble of historic museum buildings, which have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1999, would take its place among the important museums of the world again.

To restore Museumsinsel based on the fundamentals of monument conservation and enhance it carefully, Masterplan Museumsinsel (Museum Island Master Plan) was adopted in 1999. Its implementation – undoubtedly SPK’s largest construction project – has been ongoing since then. The Alte Nationalgalerie was reopened in 2001, followed by the Bode-Museum in 2006, and the Neues Museum in 2009. The latter experienced a genuine rebirth, rising from the ruins on Museumsinsel that remained in the wake of the war. The Pergamonmuseum is being renovated in two phases. The new reception building, the James-Simon-Galerie, will open soon – it will welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors and guide them into the world of Museumsinsel.

The Kulturforum is Berlin’s second important cultural center. While Germany was divided, the area on the West side of the Berlin Wall was planned and developed as a cultural and museum district. The Philharmonie and the Staatsbibliothek, both designed by Hans Scharoun, were built there. Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie across the street from the Staatsbibliothek has long been an icon of the Modern era. Plans for a museum complex that would include the Gemäldegalerie, Kunstgewerbemuseum, Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings), and Skulpturensammlung (Sculpture Collection) have been pursued since the 1960s. Initially, only the Kunstgewerbemuseum was built; it opened in 1985. At that time, the Gemäldegalerie collections that had stayed in West Berlin were being exhibited in Dahlem. Despite the heated debate about returning them to Museumsinsel, the plans for the new building had progressed so far by 1990 that they could no longer be reversed. When the Gemäldegalerie opened in 1998, it was the last large construction project on the Kulturforum for a long time.

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New tasks

After German reunification, the renovation work on Museumsinsel required all of SPK’s attention. It has presented an enormous financial and logistical challenge. But the museum landscape’s reorganization will not be completed once the work on Museumsinsel is finished. In 2012, the debate around the issue of whether to keep the painting collection at the Kulturforum or move it to Museumsinsel reignited. Once again, the focus of attention was the Kulturforum.

The urban context of the Kulturforum reflects the historical cataclysms and catastrophes of the past century like few other places. For this reason, SPK will place more emphasis on this aspect of the Kulturforum in the future. The outstanding collection of 20th century art from the Nationalgalerie will finally be on permanent display in the planned Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum of the 20th Century). It is the right place for encouraging visitors to experience the 20th century artistic development against the backdrop of Germany’s political history during that period.

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