Throughout history, different objects from different cultures and epochs have been exhibited in the museum’s spaces. Today the Bode-Museum houses three collections. The Skulpturensammlung comprises sculpture dating from the early Middle Ages to the late 18th century, mainly from Italy and Germany. The Museum für Byzantinische Kunst largely holds late antique and Byzantine works of art as well as everyday objects from the entire Mediterranean region.
Personal and political interests can be traced in the collections. For example, Wilhelm von Bode (PDF, 67 KB), the first director general of the Königliche Museen zu Berlin (Royal Museums in Berlin, now the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), preferred to collect works from the Italian Renaissance (PDF, 214 KB) – in keeping with his personal inclination. In contrast, he acquired German art primarily because he felt it must be represented in the capital of the newly founded German Empire on a par with the older collections in Vienna and Munich. The good relations between Emperor Wilhelm II and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II were decisive in assembling the Byzantine collection (PDF, 237 KB). On the other hand, Bode collected very little French art – in line with Bismarck’s attempt to isolate France. There are also few Spanish and English works in the collections.
The Münzkabinett has been an independent museum since 1868 and was already internationally established prior to Bode’s directorship. Located in the Bode-Museum since 1904, it houses coins, medals and paper money dating from antiquity to the present.
The works have entered the collections at different times and under differing circumstances. Our current ethical standards are more stringent than was sometimes the case in the past. Scrutinising the objects’ histories and making them transparent is a key aspect of the museum’s work. Integral to museum practice, provenance research examines the origin and acquisition of the objects. The National Socialist period is a particular focus, and raises questions such as these: How did the female bust, originally purchased for the Führer Museum in Linz, Austria, come to be here? How did works once owned by the Jewish collector Marczell von Nemes from Budapest become property of the Dresdner Bank, and why did the bank sell them to the museum? Who was the art dealer Ludwig Pollak in Rome? Even after extensive research, it is often still not possible to answer all the ensuing questions.
The Bode-Museum’s collections have their origins in the 16th century Kunstkammer (chambers of art and curiosities) of the Brandenburg electors and the Royal Museums that opened in Berlin in 1830. The current holdings have thus been assembled over several centuries by collectors (PDF, 437 KB) and museum staff. Although the significance of the Prussian rulers, museum directors and many curators for the collections has largely been clarified, there is a lack of basic research concerning other people involved with the collections. We know very little about the conservators and outside collaborators.
It is striking – but unfortunately not surprising – that remarkably few women have held leading positions throughout the museum’s history. The female directors of the Skulpturensammlung and the Gemäldegalerie (Old Master Paintings) in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) are an exception.
For a long time, the ideological and political affiliations of staff members were not the focus of scholarship. Max J. Friedländer, who succeeded Bode as the director of the Gemäldegalerie in 1924 and, as a Jew, was dismissed at the beginning of the Nationalist Socialist dictatorship in 1933, wrote that Bode "had worked for the advancement of the Berlin museums for half a century...with more success than any other museum director" but also that he "was completely unprincipled, even innocently unscrupulous as a man of action.” Bode repeatedly expressed anti-Semitic viewpoints in his correspondence. How can an institution address the fact that its eponym made unforgivably malicious accusations against Jewish citizens? Bode’s anti-Semitism is particularly shameful in view of the prominent role of Jewish patrons for the museum. In recent years have seen an intensifying debate about changing the name of the museum. Given Bode’s undeniable service to the museum, we advocate retaining the name "Bode-Museum". We see it as our duty to publicise and critically reflect on the anti-Semitism of the man whose name the museum bears.