The Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection) has a very special connection with the rooms in which it is exhibited: they were created especially for the collection in 1855 in the Neues Museum. The building was destroyed in the Second World War and remained a ruin in the centre of the city for many decades. After it was restored, the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung was finally able to move back to its first home. The remnants of the original, exuberant painting and ornamentation of the rooms were preserved by architect David Chipperfield in his meticulous restoration of the building. The resulting contrast with the modern organisation of the exhibition space creates a fascinating interplay between the old and the new.
One of the biggest attractions for visitors to the Neues Museum is the bust of Nefertiti. In addition to the renowned bust, the collection has several other sculptures of Nefertiti – made of quartzite and granite as well as a fragile limestone figure – which provide further insights into the famous queen. She is surrounded by famous portrait busts of the royal family as well as members of the court in Amarna from the period around 1351-1334 BC. Of particular note is the expressive face of her husband Akhenaton who saw himself as the earthly representative of a monotheistic god.
Three complete burial chambers date from an even earlier period. Hundreds of reliefs from the chambers present us with a panorama of ancient Egyptian culture, and prove to be a mine of information on stylistic developments in the period around 2500 BC.
No less extraordinary are the findings from Sudan. They encompass artworks from the ancient Meroitic kingdom that flourished from 300 BC to 400 AD, such as reliefs from the chapels of the ancient pyramids in Meroë, a temple altar and the exquisitely crafted gold treasures of Queen Amanishakheto.
In terms of numbers, the largest group of exhibits at the museum is the sumptuous collection of original manuscripts from the Papyrussammlung. Taken as a whole they form an exceptional 'library of the ancient world' which includes Homer’s Iliad and two complete manuscripts of the Tale of Sinuhe.
The exhibits at the Museum für Ägyptisches Kunst und Papyrussammlung evoke a cosmos of continuity and change that distinguished the highly developed ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures over the course of four millennia: from daily life in the valley of the Nile to the worship of kings and gods and their beliefs in the afterlife – an experience for all visitors.
The Ägyptisches Museum (Egyptian Museum) is one of the oldest departments of the early royal art collections. The first significant acquisition of Egyptian relics arrived in Berlin in 1823. Five years later, King Friedrich Wilhelm III took the advice of Alexander von Humboldt and purchased a collection comprising about 1,600 objects from the Italian business man and art dealer Giuseppe Passalacqua. The Italian art dealer was subsequently appointed as the first director of the museum and his artworks were put on display in the gallery wing of Schloss Monbijou (north of the river Spree, opposite the Bode-Museum, destroyed in the Second World War). The collection was expanded considerably by the acquisition of more than 1,500 artefacts from the Prussian excavations led by Richard Lepsius in Egypt between 1842 and 1845.
A short time later, the Ägyptisches Museum moved into the newly built Neues Museum. Over the following decades, its holdings were continually expanded through purchases, donations and excavations. The archaeological digs at Tell el-Amarna, the royal seat of Akhenaton and Nefertiti, proved especially fruitful, enriching the collection considerably between 1911 and 1914. Equally important were the finds from the excavations of the mortuary temple of King Sahure and the sun temple of King Niuserre in Abusir, as well as the ancient cemetery in Abusir el-Meleq, which today are among the collection’s finest pieces.
At the end of the Second World War, the museum had to come to terms with major losses. Its exhibition space, the Neues Museum, had been heavily bombed and stood in ruins. Numerous artefacts from the collection had been destroyed or were seriously damaged even though many items had been put into storage. The political division of post-war Germany resulted in the separation of the museum’s holdings. Objects that had been seized and taken to the Soviet Union were returned to East Berlin in 1958 and exhibited from then on in the Bode-Museum. The exhibition was dedicated to the cultural and religious history of the kingdom of the Pharaohs. Large relief cycles from the tomb chambers and temples, colossal statues of gods and kings, sarcophagi, painted coffins and the masks of mummies introduced visitors to the beliefs and world view of the ancient Egyptians. Installations on their culture and history gave insights into daily life thousands of years ago. Alongside the classics of Ancient Egyptian literature, the Papyrussammlung displayed a range of works from illustrated books of the dead to Christian and Arabic manuscripts.
The artefacts secured by the Western Allies returned to Berlin from West Germany in 1967. They were exhibited in the eastern building of a complex designed by Prussian architect Friedrich August Stüler opposite Schloss Charlottenburg, which today houses the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. This exhibition concentrated primarily on the history of art in Ancient Egypt.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the museums were reorganised in January 1991 with the aim of finally bringing the separated collections back together. Within the framework of the Masterplan Museumsinsel, it was decided that the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung would be returned to its historic location as soon as the derelict Neues Museum had been fully restored. Prior to that, however, the exhibits on display in the Bode Museum had to be moved in 1996 when renovations of the building were due to begin. As a temporary measure, the artefacts were partly integrated into the exhibition in Charlottenburg.
From 2005, the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung could once again be seen on the Museumsinsel Berlin. Until February 2009, the collection was exhibited on the upper floor of the Altes Museum, and in October of the same year, it finally returned to the spectacularly reconstructed Neues Museum where its contents can be admired today.