24 June 2011

My top 5 museums in Berlin

My most recent European adventure was a five-day visit to Berlin at the end of May, which was a great success. It had been an age since my only other visit to the German capital, so a return journey was definitely called for. I stayed in the excellent Wombats hostel in the former East Berlin; the nearest U-Bahn station is still named in the Cold War style, after Rosa Luxemburg, a co-founder of the precursor of the German Communist Party, who was murdered in 1919. 

The Museuminsel - the island in the Spree river that holds a collection of the world's finest museums - was definitely at the top of my Berlin agenda, and I managed to see nearly everything it had to offer. In fact, my Berlin visit turned into a museum and gallery extravanganza. Here's a rundown of my personal top five, in no particular order.

Märkisches Museum

The first museum I visited was the appealingly low-key yet interesting Märkisches Museum, which provides an overview of the history of Berlin since its founding in the Middle Ages. Located in a red brick monastic-like building, the museum displays a wide array of items from the city's past, including a great selection of old toys - Germany was once the world centre of expertise for toymaking - and a fascinating range of consumer products from previous generations. I couldn't overlook the annex containing medieval weaponry and armour, with racks of swords and a cumbersome full suit of plate armour. I also spent a while admiring the images in the venerable Kaiser-Panorama, an elegant circular polished wood booth with more than a dozen viewing windows. Each window displays a different stereoscopic photograph, and the whole set rotates every 30 seconds or so, enabling a viewer to take in all the photos from their seat without moving. There were some lovely crowd scenes at a Zeppelin launch and at political rallies in Unter den Linden, which just shows that stereoscopic photography is still as much of a novelty as it was a century ago.

'You can have anything you like, as long as it's tiny'


Cash register, c.1910.

Bode Museum

Part of the thrill of visiting the Bode Museum, which occupies the northern tip of the Museuminsel, is soaking up the glorious building itself. Its semi-circular neoclassical front caps off the island beautifully, and once inside visitors are immediately confronted with an extraordinarily palatial setting, with marble staircases, gold trimmings everywhere and a triumphant regal statue as a centrepiece. The collections are equally impressive, with a huge number of artworks from the years before photography came along and complicated everything. The Bode is particularly strong on religious artworks. My favourite was probably the lively and charismatic statue of the Virgin and Child from the 1460s in which the baby Jesus is wriggling furiously and draping himself in Mary's cloak, while she tries to keep him under control. And a bust from two centuries later, a Mater Dolorosa from Seville in the 1670s, is an amazing feat of verisimilitude: the anguished expression is augmented by the superbly lifelike crystal eyes and the two tears rolling down her cheeks.   

Bode Museum

Virgin & Child From Dangolsheim, c.1460.

Mater Dolorosa, c.1670.

Pergamon Museum

My 1997 visit was marked with torrential rain as central Europe was beset with the worst flooding for 50 years, but I still had an enjoyable time exploring the wonderful history of the city. The highlight of the whole visit for me was touring the splendid Pergamon Museum on the Museuminsel in the river Spree, and basking in the glory of its key exhibits: the great altar from Pergamon in Asia Minor, the reconstructed Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon and the Roman Market Gate of Miletus. In my 2011 visit I was determined to revisit the museum to take in its superb sights once more - this time with my D-SLR in tow. 

The wonders of the British Museum are of course universally admired, but not even a visit to the Parthenon Sculptures gallery can prepare you for your first sight of the magnificent Pergamon Altar, which is the centrepiece of the museum and the first thing you see once you enter. The sharp, polished steps climb to the holy space atop the altar, which affords a fine view of the highly detailed and well-preserved sculptures in the frieze depicting warring gods and monsters, which runs around the altar and continues along the walls of the museum. The next room is extra-tall to house the soaring facade of the Miletus market gate, a Roman construction from around 120AD, held aloft by graceful narrow pillars and flanked by regal statues. And beyond that lies the reconstructed minor gate from the great and ancient city of Babylon: the Ishtar gate, with its vibrant blue-glazed tiles depicting fearsome monsters with eagle claws and scorpion tails. This is only the smaller of the two gates that guarded the entrance to the great imperial city of antiquity, but it still towers majestically.

Pergamon Altar

Detail of Pergamon Altar frieze

Miletus market gate

Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate detail

Neues Museum

This substantially rebuilt museum reopened in 2009, and contains the strongest selection of Egyptian artefacts in Berlin. Its most famous exhibit is the immaculate Nefertiti Bust, which sits resplendent in its own dedicated room, gazing down a long corridor of other lesser riches. Alas, no photographs are permitted of this one exhibit, but there are plenty around on the net. I did photograph many other exhibits, including a depiction of Nefertiti herself with her royal husband Akhenaten - two slender faces gazing out serenely from their glass case, as in life side by side. The statues from the 18th Dynasty are approximately 3350 years old. Another statue, of the head of an 18th Dynasty princess, is a remarkably accomplished piece, with elegant swooping eyebrows adorning the wide expanse of the eyes and contoured around the curve of the skull.  From a much later era, when the Romans controlled Egypt, there's a splendid statue of the sun god Helios, which faces the Nefertiti bust down the long, long museum corridor. This statue from the 2nd century AD depicts the god in all his immortal perfection, and is a testament to the artistry of the age.    

Akhenaten & Nefertiti busts

Helios statue

18th Dynasty princess bust 

Deutches Technikmuseum

Long-time devotees of Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go will find much to admire here, in Berlin's technology and transport museum. Signs are good even as you approach the complex, with a looming Douglas cargo plane that participated in the Berlin Airlift suspended high on a rooftop above the museum's new gallery building. This is a museum that flaunts its big toys. The entrance hall boasts the Cessna in which the young Mathias Rust famously invaded Soviet airspace and landed near Red Square in 1987. (Rust was imprisoned for a year for the flight, before being deported back to Germany. The Cessna affair helped Premier Gorbachev's glasnost reforms, because it fatally damaged the standing of the Soviet military old guard.) I found the section on early radio and television fascinating - it included a very elderly Baird Televisor from 1932. There was also an interesting collection of vintage still and film cameras, just waiting to inspire the next generation of budding Henri Cartier-Bressons.

The largest space within the museum is reserved for its collection of vehicles. The nautical section has a full-size steam tug from 1901, and the aviation area upstairs boasts a splendid collection of German aircraft. My favourites were the Ju-52 trimotor airliner with its stylish shining metal ribs, and the innovative and graceful Stahltaube monoplane from 1914. Out the back in the museum's rail sheds is a fine selection of steam trains; I've never been a big train fan, but I have to admit that venturing underneath one massive engine via a service pit and smelling the fresh oil was remarkably good fun. (You'll not find me joining the trainspotters at the end of the platforms at Clapham Junction, however).

Deutches Technikmuseum

Mathias Rust's Cessna that he landed near Red Square
Heavy express locomotive, 1956 (rebuilt from 1939 streamlined locomotive)
Baird International Televisor, 1932.

Junkers Ju-52
Medium-format cameras from 1929-60.
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