Berlin Museums a World Apart

I’m a huge fan of museums. Art, science, animals (dead or alive), archaeology, geology, history, a man and his crap—you name it, and I’ll visit it. But I’ve discovered that there are few truly great museums. The British Museum qualifies, as do the Field Museum in Chicago and the Museum of Natural History in New York.

There are plenty of others I haven’t yet visited, but I can now scratch the Pergamonmuseum from that list. The Pergamon is part of Berlin’s Museum Island, a World Heritage Site since 1999. Even though the namesake Pergamon Altar and the north hall are currently closed for renovation, the remainder of the museum is quite impressive indeed.

The museum was built during a time when men dreamed big and then stole bodaciously. Elgin liberating the figures ringing the Parthenon, now on display at the British Museum, was bodacious. But taking the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, coupled with the processional way? One needs a new vocabulary to cope with taking on that scale.

The first Pergamon had to be demolished because the foundations weren’t up to the task of supporting the massive stone and brick facades that are the Pergamon’s stock in trade. In addition to the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus dates from AD 100 and features two stories of columns and artwork. There’s even a room from Aleppo, which, given the fierce fighting in Syria recently, makes its acquisition seem prescient instead of possibly illegal. We also wanted to see the Alhambra Dome, taken from the palace we saw during our 2015 trip to Spain. Thinking back to the Alhambra, I don’t think that dome was missed.

Because of the renovation, entrance to the museum is limited. We hadn’t booked in advance, so we waited in line for about 30 minutes until a sufficient number of people left the building. But visiting the Pergamon was well worth the wait, and the scale of it means that even capacity crowds don’t feel that way.

Experiences of Egypt and beyond

Das Neues Museum (New Museum) is adjacent to the Pergamon. Built in the mid-19th century and  badly damaged during the Second World War, it was extensively refurbished during the 1990s. The New Museum features artifacts from the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History and the Collection of Classical Antiquities.

After waiting in line and taking in the Pergamon, I admit that we probably gave New Museum short shrift. But we did hit the highlights, including the extensive Egyptian artifacts that Declan likes. While the artifacts were impressive, I thought the lighting in the Egyptian section did the artifacts no justice. It was rather harsh and threw glare across the glass encasing many objects.

The curators did a much better job displaying two of its must-see pieces: the Golden Hat and the bust of Nefertiti. The Golden Hat, the use of which remains unknown, was in a darkly lit room with soft lighting making the hat shine. The bust of Nefertiti was in a room by itself, her glassy-eyed gaze still penetrating after so many centuries.

On a future trip, I’d make sure to see the Altes (old) Museum, with its collection of ancient Greek utensils and Etruscan art, and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), with its collection of impressionist paintings, both of which are closed on Monday.

But those will need to wait for another visit.

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