History of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin falls under the auspices of the umbrella organization of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (or ‘Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’), which also presides over the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin’s state library), the Geheimes Staatsarchiv (archives of the former state of Prussia), the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut, and the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung and its museum of musical instruments. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation was established in 1957 to preserve and expand on the cultural legacy of the former state of Prussia.

Today, as a body of national cultural importance, the foundation is funded by each of Germany’s 16 federal states as well as the federal government. With its many museums and research institutes that have evolved over the course of centuries, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin represents a universal museum, spread over several sites across Berlin, all dedicated to the preservation, study, and public appreciation of art and cultural treasures from all epochs of human history. Its collections cover areas of European and non-European art, archaeology, and ethnology of almost all nations, cultures, and periods.

The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin has its origins in the royal ‘Kunstkammer’ (or cabinet of arts) of Joachim II, Elector of Brandenburg, in the mid-16th century. His original Kunstkammer was almost entirely lost in the Thirty Years War, but was gradually rebuilt by the following generations of electors and kings. In the early 1800s, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia advocated the dissolution of the Kunstkammer’s collection and its removal from court, in favour of the establishment of a public art museum for its display. After the Wars of Liberation and the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the Prussian reformist monarch sought to transform Prussia from a predominantly military state to a cultural one. In 1822, Karl Friedrich Schinkel was commissioned to construct the first royal museum, the ‘Königliches Museum’, which, being the oldest, is known today as the Altes Museum and is situated at Lustgarten opposite the site of the former royal residence, the Berlin Palace. Its opening in 1830 marked the dawn of the Museumsinsel Berlin.

The rapid growth of the collections, then housed in the Altes Museum and the royal palaces, prompted King Friedrich Wilhelm IV (Friedrich Wilhelm III’s son) to declare, in 1841, that all land to the north of the Altes Museum on the Spree island should be transformed into a ‘sanctuary of art and learning’. There then followed, in relatively quick succession, the construction of several other museum buildings: the Neues Museum (built from 1843 to 1855), the Nationalgalerie (known today as the Alte Nationalgalerie, built from 1867 to 1876), the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (known today as the Bode-Museum, built from 1897 to 1904), and finally the Pergamonmuseum (built from 1910 to 1930). The extraordinary achievements of German archaeology during the years of the German Empire resulted in huge swathes of objects being brought to Berlin, so that the museums soon began to rival much older comparable collections in Paris and London.

The cultural policies of the Nazi regime resulted in dramatic losses, in particular to the modern-art collections of the Nationalgalerie and Kupferstichkabinett. In 1937 hundreds of paintings, drawings, and prints were forcibly seized after being labelled as ‘degenerate art’. Many were sold to buyers in foreign countries as a means to raise foreign currency, while others were simply destroyed. Over the next few years, all the buildings on the Museumsinsel suffered severe structural damage during the bombing in the Second World War. Prior to and during the bombardment, the collections were removed and placed in storage, mostly at external sites. Those objects stored in areas subsequently occupied by the Red Army were confiscated in 1945 and transported to the Soviet Union as looted art. In 1958, the Soviet Union returned one-and-a-half million works of art to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Despite this return, hundreds of objects that belonged to the original collections of the Berlin museums are still held in Russia today.

As long ago as the late 19th century, the lack of exhibition space for the expanding collections necessitated the use of museum buildings beyond the confines of the island in the river Spree. The first disburdening of the Neues Museum occurred with the transferral of the ethnographic collection to a building on Königgrätzer Strasse (known today as Stresemannstrasse) which opened in 1886 as the ‘Royal Museum of Ethnology’. However this move did little to diminish the urgent need for more space for the constantly growing collections. The decision was therefore finally taken to relocate the non-European collections to the western suburbs of Berlin. This plan eventually became a reality with the emergence of the Dahlem museum complex in the 1970s, at a time when the political landscape of the city had been radically transformed as a result of the Second World War and the subsequent division of the entire country and of Berlin into four occupation zones controlled by the former Allies.

During this time, objects from the collections that had been safeguarded by the Western Allies were gradually returned to West Berlin. The museums in the eastern half of Berlin continued to make use of the exhibition buildings on the Museumsinsel, initially in their ruined state and later after only partial restoration. In the absence of a suitable museum complex of their own, the collections in West Berlin on the other hand were initially stored and displayed at makeshift venues. Finally the plan emerged to erect a new cultural centre close to the ruins of Potsdamer Platz – in a move that heralded the birth of the Kulturforum, the site not just of museum collections, but also a state library and a philharmonic concert hall. Construction started in the 1960s, spearheaded by giants of modern architecture, Hans Scharoun and Mies van der Rohe. By the time the city was reunified in 1990, two new buildings had been completed to house collections belonging to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: the Neue Nationalgalerie, with its collection of modern art, and the Kunstgewerbemuseum with decorative art. After overhauling the original architectural plans, new buildings were erected for the Gemäldegalerie, the Kupferstichkabinett, and Kunstbibliothek. The development also saw the creation of temporary exhibition galleries, which are used by all three institutions to present special cross-collection exhibitions.

With German reunification in 1990, the chance presented itself to reunite the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, forty-five years after they were torn apart in the Second World War, and to return them to their original home on the Museumsinsel. But in implementing this plan, organizers were quick to realize that certain collections, primarily those from West Berlin, had grown considerably in size since their pre-war days, while the buildings on the Museumsinsel were sorely in need of renovation, and, in the case of the Neues Museum, complete restoration. The acknowledgement of the Museumsinsel as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 coincided with the decision to draw up and gradually implement a master plan for the restoration and modernization of the entire museum complex.  

The process of restoring the Museumsinsel to its former glory has already seen great successes with the refurbishment and reopening of the Alte Nationalgalerie (in 2001), Bode-Museum (in 2006), and most recently the Neues Museum (in 2009), and is currently still underway with the major refurbishment of the Pergamonmuseum. And in a parallel major development, the collections of art and artefacts from non-European cultures are being relocated to the Humboldt-Forum, a modern cultural centre currently under construction in the soon-to-be rebuilt Berlin Palace. Through the combination of exhibition, learning, and ongoing cultural dialogue, the Humboldt-Forum will rekindle the ethos of the brothers after whom it is named: Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who were instrumental in shaping the Royal Museums (precursor to today’s Staatliche, or ‘National’, Museen) in the early 19th century.