With the reopening of the Neues Museum in 2009, the colourful bust of Nefertiti returned to the building in which it was first publicly displayed 85 years earlier. Today the queen’s likeness stands in the North Dome Room on the second floor, but her museum career began in the Greek Courtyard.
The bust arrived in Berlin in 1913. Along with the other finds from Amarna unearthed during the excavations of 1911–13 and allotted to the German team, it had entered the collection of James Simon, who had funded the excavations. Simon initially displayed the bust in his villa on Tiergartenstrasse, where it was first presented to Emperor Wilhelm II. He later bequeathed it to the Ägyptisches Museum as a permanent loan, along with the other objects from the excavation.
The Amarna finds were first shown at the Neues Museum in November of 1913, but without the colourful bust. The exhibition, of limited duration due to the inclusion of loans from Egypt which had to be returned, sparked great public enthusiasm for this “novel” Egyptian art, which so radically broke with the style of the well-known ancient Egyptian artworks in the Neues Museum. A separate room was therefore planned for the permanent display of the art from Amarna. On 11 July 1920, James Simon, one of the greatest patrons in the museums’ history, had donated the objects to the Ägyptisches Museum, including the bust of Nefertiti.
In order to appropriately display the Amarna finds, the galleries of the Neues Museum required significant renovation. The existing Egyptian galleries were completely full, so the former Greek Courtyard was roofed over to provide a space in which to exhibit the new, fragile objects.
View of the Amarna Courtyard at the Neues Museum after the conversion of the Greek Courtyard, on the right, the Nefertiti Bust under a bell jar, ca. 1924 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv
After construction was completed in 1924, the artworks were arranged in the new section of the museum, dubbed the “Amarna Courtyard”. The display now included the bust of Nefertiti, which was given a central position, but surrounded by other objects from the workshop of Thutmose. The bust remained in this location until it was moved to a secure storage facility in 1939 for protection during the war.
Following the Second World War, the American occupying forces took the bust to the Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden, along with numerous other works of art from Germany. In 1956 it was officially returned to West Berlin, where it was initially displayed at the Museumszentrum Dahlem (Dahlem Museum Centre). In 1967 it moved to the new permanent exhibition of the Ägyptisches Museum in the eastern Stülerbau across from Charlottenburg Palace.
The Nefertiti Bust in the permanent exhibition of the Ägyptisches Museum in the eastern Stülerbau © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung
For more than two decades it stood on the first floor of the rotunda as part of the exhibition tour. Following the reunification of Germany, the number of visitors to the Ägyptisches Museum and public interest in the bust increased significantly. In the early 1990s the sculpture was therefore given not only a larger showcase, but also a room of its own on the ground floor, where it stood alone in a dimly lit atmosphere. This setting allowed the lighting to be optimised: the face, which had previously appeared merely pretty and unblemished, was now highlighted not only as a strikingly beautiful visage, but above all as a vibrant portrait expressing strength of character.
In 2005 the collection of the Ägyptisches Museum moved from Charlottenburg to the upper floor of the Altes Museum, the first step in its return to the Museumsinsel. There, the bust of Nefertiti was not only given an almost monumental display case within a large, well-lit room, it was also embedded within a new context which no longer presented it as a solitary masterpiece of the Egyptian collection.
The Nefertiti Bust on the upper floor of the Altes Museum © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Jürgen Liepe
From the landing of the upper floor, before they even enter the actual exhibition, visitors can already catch a glimpse of Nefertiti through the rotunda, if only from a distance. Only after traversing the rooms dedicated to Egyptian sculpture and the other finds from Amarna, however, do they reach the central room in the middle of the exhibition. This allows viewers to better understand the bust in its artistic and historical context.
The concept of staging the bust as the climax of a museum tour whose content has been thoughtfully developed, instead of placing it at the beginning of the exhibit, was also applied to the final installation in the North Dome Room of the Neues Museum. Today, visitors begin their tour in the Sculpture Hall, then proceed through the Amarna rooms, where they encounter members of the royal family, represented by portrait heads, before entering the North Dome Room. Here they are greeted by the impressive profile of the bust, which has once again been given a room of its own.
The Nefertiti Bust in the north cupola room of the Neues Museum© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Achim Kleuker
Nefertiti’s gaze extends through the entire length of the building to rest on the monumental figure of the sun god Helios, which stands in the South Dome Room. Helios is, of course, a Greek god, but this statue was found in Middle Egypt. Though the two objects were admittedly created some 1500 years apart.
The two figures are linked not only by the fact that they were discovered in Egypt, but also by their connection to the sun: Nefertiti is known as the “Sun Queen”, who together with her husband Akhenaten paid homage to the new religion of the sun. Helios is the sun god, and this depiction of him, created in the Roman period, represents the “new” image of Egypt in antiquity.
Line of sight from the Nefertiti Bust to the statue of Helios © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Achim Kleuker
The North Dome Room was originally intended to house Greek sculptures, as evidenced by the painted murals depicting heroes of classical antiquity. The room nonetheless seems to have been made for this bust. The dominant green and blue colour scheme strikingly complements the queen’s blue crown. Even the richly patterned floor does not distract from the piece, but instead enhances its vivacity. August Stüler, the architect who originally designed the building, could not have created a better stage for the bust’s presentation.
In order to allow every visitor to experience the extraordinary effect of the bust and the space, the North Dome Room is subject to special regulations that do not apply anywhere else in the museums. During guided tours the guides and visitors are requested to restrict their conversation to the spaces outside the room, and all forms of photography are also prohibited.
When the Neues Museum opened in 2009, photography was initially permitted in this room, as in all permanent exhibitions of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It quickly became clear, however, that too many people reach for their cameras or mobile phones in front of the bust – and very often forget to turn off the flash – preventing other visitors from viewing this unique work of art undisturbed.
It is, however, permitted to photograph the queen at any time from one of the two rooms adjacent to the North Dome Room. With this one limitation, which after all does not completely prohibit photographs of the bust, the museum provides all its visitors a singular visiting experience.
The Nefertiti Bust in the north cupola room of the Neues Museum © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Achim Kleuker