The Museumsinsel Berlin is located in the middle of the city, on the site of Berlin’s founding, eight centuries ago. The island is a museum ensemble of unsurpassed diversity and stature, which houses the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s unique collections of art and cultural artefacts from Europe and the wider Mediterranean region.
The Altes Museum is the birthplace of all public museums in Berlin. As the first exhibition building on the Museumsinsel Berlin, it was constructed directly opposite the original palace and next to the cathedral. Built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel from 1823 to 1830, it is one of the most stunning early museum buildings in Europe, boasting a broad atrium and inviting staircase overlooking Lustgarten, as well as an elegant rotunda, modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. Originally conceived with the crucial backing of Wilhelm von Humboldt as a place that would make the royal Prussian collections accessible to everyone, the museum is used by the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities) to present its many treasures here, among them: painted vases, the sculpture known as the “Praying Boy”, and colourfully painted fragments of Etruscan architecture, which are presented in wonderful harmony with the Neoclassical building. The Münzkabinett (Numismatic Collection) complements this sweeping overview of classical antiquity with its display of ancient coins.
The second great building on the Museumsinsel Berlin was constructed by Friedrich August Stüler (Schinkel’s pupil) between 1843 and 1855: the Neues Museum. It was a crucial turning point in the development of the entire island in the Spree as a “sanctuary of art and science”. After its partial destruction in World War II, it spent the following decades as a ruin in the heart of the city, until extensive and elaborate renovation and restoration work was undertaken on the structure by David Chipperfield Architects, allowing it to finally reopen in 2009. Today, the rich architectural forms and decorative features from the original structure, executed in the late Neoclassical and Historicist styles, have been brought into a charged, palpable dialogue with the strict, modern vernacular of the building’s newly designed sections. With enormous sensitivity and consummate skill, Chipperfield has succeeded to simultaneously preserve both Stüler’s heritage-listed building and the scars of modern history, while at the same time creating a truly modern museum.
In the Neues Museum one of the world’s most beautiful sculptures awaits the viewer: Nefertiti, the most visited bust in the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, whose precious artefacts are on display in the museum. The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s collection of prehistoric and ancient artefacts, the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte has also taken up permanent residency in the museum with a display that includes Heinrich Schliemann’s famous collection of finds from Troy and the mysterious Bronze-Age “Berlin Gold Hat”. They are combined in a comprehensive display with artworks from the Antikensammlung.
As the original home to the Nationalgalerie's collection, which has spread over time to various other locations, the majestic Alte Nationalgalerie dominates the island’s skyline. From its elevated vantage point, this 19th-century temple to art is a sanctum of paintings and sculptures that reflect the major developments in art from the Romanticism and Neo-classicism of the ‘Age of Goethe’ up to French and German Realist painting.
The design for the Alte Nationalgalerie stemmed from an architectural sketch made by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. It was built by Friedrich August Stüler, who was responsible for designing the Neues Museum before it. Johann Heinrich Strack, who, like Stüler was a pupil of Schinkel, took over the supervision of the construction from 1867 to 1876, the year of its completion and opening.
Like a moated palace, the neo-Baroque Bode-Museum rises up from the water at the northernmost tip of the Museumsinsel Berlin. Once visitors have passed the building’s central enfilade – formed by the majestic Great Domed Hall, the basilica, and the Small Domed Hall – they are brought face-to-face with works from the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst.
The collection’s European sculptures dating from the Middle Ages to the 18th century are consistently juxtaposed with works from the same epoch taken from the Gemäldegalerie's collection, in a curatorial display scheme inspired by the museum’s spiritus rector, Wilhelm von Bode. It was his desire to combine paintings, sculptures, and craftwork from a particular period in a single, unified display. Ernst Eberhard von Ihne specifically designed the museum to fit this purpose; it was constructed between 1897 and 1904 and was originally named the Kaiser Friedrich-Museum. Today, the Bode-Museum is also home to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s numismatic collection, the Münzkabinett.
The Pergamonmuseum was created as the last of the five large exhibition buildings on the Museumsinsel Berlin. Designed by Alfred Messel, its construction lasted twenty years from 1910 to 1930 and was supervised by Ludwig Hoffmann after Messel’s death. Year on year it attracts around one million visitors from all over the world. The most breath-taking of all artworks they come to admire is the eponymous Pergamon Altar, which the Antikensammlung presents here together with other magnificent archaeological reconstructions and its array of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures.
The Pergamonmuseum houses two other collections: the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East), with its bright-blue Ishtar Gate, and the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum for Islamic Art), with its elaborately decorated stone facade from Mshatta. Besides these masterpieces of reconstructed architecture which incorporate original large-scale finds into the monumental design, the three collections also present scores of smaller treasures from their holdings.
The Pergamonmuseum is currently undergoing extensive renovation planned by the architectural practice of Oswald Mathias Ungers. Alfred Messel’s original idea of adding a fourth wing to complete the building on the side facing Kupfergraben is finally about to be realized. Since 2013 the hall with the Pergamon Altar is closed, as is the North Wing and the Hellenistic Hall. The South Wing of the Pergamonmuseum – which features the Ishtar Gate, the Processional Way, the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum for Islamic Art), and the Market Gate of Miletus will remain closed after 23 October 2023.
The temporary exhibition building Pergamonmuseum. The Panorama was erected opposite the Bode-Museum, in the street Am Kupfergraben, based on Yadegar Asisi’s conceptual design and plans drafted by the architectural firm spreeformat architekten GmbH. Interimsbau Pergamonmuseum Realisierungsgesellschaft mbH, an enterprise of the Wolff Gruppe Stuttgart/Essen, executed the construction. The building houses the exhibition project PERGAMON. Masterpieces from the Ancient Metropolis with a 360° Panorama by Yadegar Asisi.
With the panorama, the Antikensammlung and Yadegar Asisi are shining a spotlight on the city of Pergamon in Roman times (ca. 129 AD). The project carries on from the huge success of the first panorama that Studio Asisi created in 2011 for the Pergamonmuseum for the exhibition Pergamon: Panorama of the Antique Metropolis.
Even during the inception of plans to forge a ‘sanctuary for art and learning’ on the Museumsinsel, the architects also aimed to create an outdoor space for people to stroll around in and while away the time. Today the Kolonnadenhof (Colonnade Courtyard) is an inviting public garden for museum and collection visitors to use. The sculptural works on display in the Kolonnadenhof stand as examples of the Nationalgalerie’s sculpture collection and present a glimpse of the rich holdings held inside.
The James-Simon-Galerie is the visitor centre for the Museum Island. The building serves all visitors (individuals, tourist groups, and school groups) and contains ticket desks selling tickets for all museums, information desks, a café, and the central museum gift shop. In addition to a large area used for ticket sales, information and checkrooms, the James-Simon-Galerie also accommodates a lecture auditorium, and special exhibitions spaces. As part of the Master Plan for Museum Island – adopted in 1999 to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage, but also to transform it into a contemporary museum complex at the same time – the James-Simon-Galerie is assuming a central role in its function as a meeting point.
The new building provides direct access to the Pergamonmuseum and Neues Museum, and to the Archäologische Promenade, which will – in a more distant future – form a walkway connecting four museums, from the Altes Museum in the south to the Bode Museum in the north.