Museum Tourist: Neues Museum

One of the main attractions in Berlin is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island) in the center of town. It’s about halfway between the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz, two landmarks of the former East Germany. The island includes the Pergamon Museum, which features giant, amazing things brought back by 19th-century German archaeologists. (I never got around to writing about my 2008 visit, but take a quick gander at the Pergamon Altar, just one of many amazing things in an amazing museum.)

Also on that island is today’s topic: the Neues Museum. The museum’s name is a little misleading. It’s called the New Museum because it was new in the 1840s. Its collection isn’t new, either; it features Ancient Egyptian artifacts, with various other fascinating antiquities thrown in.

Of course, the fascinating antiquities got there because, in the 19th century, Europeans were going to countries around the Mediterranean, digging up pretty things, and bringing them back home to fill up their beautiful museums.

Was there a legal framework for this at the time? Sometimes. Does that make it right? Ummmmmm…let’s go look at some objects.

By far the best-known object at the museum–and one of the most famous portraits in the world–is the bust of Nefertiti. You aren’t allowed to take pictures of it now, so here’s one I took in 2008, when some of the Neues Museum’s collection was temporarily on display in a different building on the Museumsinsel.

A photo from 2008; she was on display in a different museum while the Neues Museum was being renovateed.

I took this photo in 2008, before the Neues Museum reopened; part of its collection was on display elsewhere.

Nefertiti’s bust was made in about 1340 BC. That’s way more than 3,000 years ago. That is OLD.

Also in the category of world-famous artifacts, the Neues Museum is where Heinrich Schliemann’s treasure from Troy lives. Schliemann was a 19th-century German archaeologist who was excited about Homer’s epics. He was particularly obsessed with finding Troy. He did find a place that could theoretically be Troy. Maybe. If Troy existed. It’s in Western Turkey, and you can go see it today–they had a wooden horse in the parking lot when I visited in 1998.

Schliemann dug up a treasure of gold and jewels, smuggled it out of Turkey, and claimed he’d found the treasure that the Trojans buried to hide it from the Greeks. Only problem–well, other than the part where he smuggled it out–is that the gold is from totally the wrong time for this to be related to Homer’s Troy. Ah, the 19th century. They were trying.

The Egyptian section had a few passages from tombs set up. This is a bit of a wall in the tomb of Manufer. My favorite thing about this bit of relief: it looks so sloppy because it’s not finished. They didn’t finish all the carving before closing up the tomb.

I'm sure they intended to get around to finishing this relief.

I’m sure they intended to get around to finishing this relief.


Air raids heavily damaged the Neues Museum in 1943-1945. When the city was divided at the end of the war, the Museumsinsel ended up in East Berlin, and the ruin of the Neues Museum stood, decaying, for decades. It opened four years ago after a major renovation.

Pretty much the only thing I knew going into my visit this June was that the renovation won architectural awards. So I expected something flashy, with lots of glassy protuberances.

But it was nothing like that. The work was subtle. They’d used as many architectural elements as possible from the old building and preserved what was left of the 19th-century murals. The building still looks pleasantly old, and is a backdrop to the art rather than grabbing all the attention for itself.

A statue of the sun-god, Helios, from the 2nd century AD, and his sylight, from the 21st century AD.

A statue of the sun-god Helios from the 2nd century AD–and his skylight, from the 21st century AD.

And you just can’t beat the art.

Photos: Me

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