You can’t move around central Berlin without running into Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the hub of a reunited city. Badly damaged during World War II and meticulously restored over the last decade, the buildings of Museum Island, a community of institutions that form a unique repository of world heritage art and architecture, are Berlin’s answer to the Louvre and the British Museum.
Located in the city’s Mitte District and surrounded by the River Spree, at first sight Museum Island seems overwhelming. Huge blocks of neo-Classic architecture line a maze created by five very different museums—the Altes, Neues, Bode, and Pergamon Museums, and the Old National Gallery. Together they house some of the world’s most precious objects.
At the Bode Museum, the spectacular exhibit Renaissance Faces is currently open to the public, presenting more than 150 major works of Italian portraiture by some 40 masters of the early Renaissance. The exhibit will subsequently be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, under the title The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini.
The second floor of the superbly reconstructed Neues Museum is the home of Nefertiti’s sublime limestone portrait head, sculpted by 18th dynasty Egyptian artist Thutmose. In the same building lies the treasure trove of Troy, gold by the case found in the layers of the lost city by Heinrich Schliemann and smuggled out of Turkey in the 1870s.
Reminiscence of Babylon and Ancient Greece
In the Pergamon Museum next door, marble giants battle with Olympian gods along the façade of the three-story altar from the Hellenistic city of Pergamon. Nearby, visitors can walk down a brilliant blue processional way built of glazed brick to the monumental Gate of Ishtar, a wonder of the ancient world and once entrance to the fabulous city of Babylon.
The first time I saw Museum Island, I was a student, and Berlin was still a divided city. The museums lay on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall and it took time, tenacity, and a trip through Checkpoint Charlie to get to them. Together with a group of other students, I climbed the stairs of the Pergamon Altar, the only visitors in the entire museum, and stood uneasily in the empty silence.
As I climbed those same stairs once again so many years later, the room was packed with students and tourists and filled with the hum of hundreds of voices. Pergamon had come back to life.
Exploring British architect David Chipperfield’s brilliantly re-imagined Neues Museum, I found a breathless hush on the second floor. Here the incredible head of Nefertiti stands in solitary splendor beneath a glass dome surrounded by a surging sea of acolytes and a company of museum guards. No living queen has ever been watched over with as much care as the sculpture of this iconic woman who reigned 3,500 years ago.
The striking modernity of her face and the taut tendons in her neck, so expressively captured by the artist, spoke more eloquently of Nefertiti’s stress-filled life than a dozen history books’ theorizing.Approached by a long hallway like a monarch in her audience chamber, I watched visitors gape at her, circle through the adjoining galleries filled with wonderful things found in the city she and her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaton, had built, and then return to stare at her once more. If the Pergamon Altar was a marketplace, Nefertiti’s rotunda was a temple.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii and writes about art and culture.