The Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities) has its origins in the art collections of the electors of Brandenburg and the kings of Prussia that succeeded them. The collection therefore proudly looks back on a tradition spanning over 350 years. It is one of the world’s most comprehensive collections dedicated to artworks and cultural artefacts from Greek and Roman antiquity.
Its diverse holdings include vases, inscriptions, architectural elements, sculptures, bronzes, and terracottas, but also jewellery made of precious metal and precious stones (gems and cameos), as well as glasses and carved ivory objects. The collection’s timespan ranges from the Aegean Bronze Age to the late Roman period. As a result, the focus of its collection occasionally overlaps with that of other collections at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, principally the collection of prehistoric and ancient art (Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte), of ancient Near-Eastern art (Vorderasiatisches Museum), and of Byzantine art and sculpture (Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst). These three other collections also present their treasures on the Museumsinsel Berlin – just as the Antikensammlung does, which is spread over three museum buildings: the Pergamonmuseum, the Altes Museum, and the Neues Museum.
In addition to objects from the Greek and Roman world, the Antikensammlung’s collection also boasts finds from Etruria, Cyprus, and the northern Black Sea region. Most of these objects found their way to Berlin as acquisitions, as donations, or as part of the division of finds agreed to by the German teams of archaeologists and the respective country where excavations took place.
The finds that have most captured the public imagination and attention of scholars originate from the excavations conducted by the Berlin museums in the late 19th and early 20th century in Greece (Olympia, Samos), Turkey (Pergamon, Magnesia on the Meander, Priene, Miletus, and Didyma), and Cyprus (Marion, Tamassos). The massive reconstructions of architectural elements built to scale – in particular the western face of the Pergamon Altar (180–160 BC), which includes added segments to enhance the overall impression, and the Roman market gate of Miletus (c. 100 AD), both on show in the Pergamonmuseum – are a perennial source of amazement and wonder for more than one million visitors every year.
The exhibition in the Altes Museum brilliantly exemplifies the fundamental role the Antikensammlung has played in permanently shaping Berlin’s museum landscape. Here, in the city’s oldest public museum, visitors pass through the rotunda reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon. Beneath the spectacular canopy, two Roman victories greet the visitor, between them: the most popular antique sculpture in the Antikensammlung’s collection, affectionately known as the 'Praying Boy.' The architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel purposefully had this sculptural arrangement in mind when he designed the museum, as a visual statement of its mission and agenda. Newly installed in its original position, it prepares visitors for the tour of ancient artworks that awaits them.
Berlin’s Collection of Classical Antiquities is one of the oldest of its kind north of the Alps. Its roots lie in the royal art collection of the electoral princes of Brandenburg, which was housed at one point in Schwanenburg Castle in Kleve (Cleves). Castle records dating from 1648 pertaining to antiquities held there list objects that are found in the Berlin collection today. As early as 1701, numerous marble sculptures, bronzes, terracottas, vases, lamps, and glassware were listed in a splendid multi-volume publication, entitled the 'Thesaurus Brandenburgicus'. Along with other objects from the electoral Kunstkammer (or 'cabinet of art'), these works were exhibited in the royal 'cabinet of antiquities' in the Berlin Palace.
About a hundred years later, a group of Prussian reformers with Wilhelm von Humboldt at their centre propagated the idea of creating a public museum accessible to everyone. The result was the first museum building in Berlin, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Known today as the Altes Museum (or 'Old Museum'), it was built directly opposite the royal palace and opened in 1830. When it first opened, it housed all the antiquities in the Berlin collection. Over the course of the 19th century the collection rapidly grew and additional exhibition space was soon required in the form of the Neues Museum (or 'New Museum'), which opened in 1855. The major excavations at the end of the 19th century resulted in a wave of rich additions to the collection’s holdings. Through the division of finds pursuant to archaeological excavation agreements, several massive architectural elements and sculptures were brought to Berlin and a museum had to be especially planned to house them. The Pergamonmuseum was thus opened in 1930, on the site of a building that had preceded it, but which, due to design faults, soon had to be torn down. Its architecture halls provide adequate space for the monumental reconstructions of the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and other ancient buildings, rebuilt to a scale of 1:1.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, these objects were packed up along with the thousands of objects then held in the museum’s storerooms and were removed for safekeeping to bunkers in Berlin and further afield. The museum buildings on the island suffered major damage through aerial bombardment and shelling. All of the Antikensammlung’s art objects located in Berlin at the end of the war were seized by the Red Army and taken to Moscow or Leningrad. The antiquities found by the Allies in locations outside the city were taken to designated 'collecting points.'
In 1958 the Soviet Union returned one-and-a-half million works of art to the GDR, including the frieze panels from the Pergamon Altar. The Antikensammlung returned to the Pergamonmuseum and now not merely occupied the architecture halls, but its entire north wing. At the same time, in concurrent developments in the western half of the city, the newly founded Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage) established a museum of antiquities in the western Stülerbau (today home to the Sammlung Berggruen) opposite Charlottenburg Palace. The Antikensammlung’s holdings were thus preserved and displayed at separate sites on either side of the Berlin Wall. Political reunification in 1989 also allowed the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin to reform, with its collections, including the Antikensammlung, reunited after being divided for over forty years.
Extensive restoration work on the Pergamon Altar (1994–2004) and the Market Gate of Miletus (2006–2008) marked the start of the process of massive changes that is still ongoing as part of the Masterplan Museumsinsel. In 2010/11, the Greek and Roman sculptures were moved from the north wing of the Pergamonmuseum into the Altes Museum. The Antikensammlung’s Antique treasures are now on display across both floors of the Altes Museum, just as they were in 1939. The centrepiece and heart of the permanent exhibition is the rotunda with its marble statues of ancient gods, while Greek art from the 10th to 1st century BC is on show in the adjacent galleries. On the upper floor, Etruscan and Roman works of art are presented according to theme and cultural-historical context. In the Neues Museum, reopened in 2009 after more than half a century of ruin, art from ancient Cyprus and the Roman provinces is on display in a joint exhibition created in conjunction with other collections at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.