Museum Island is a museum ensemble of five historic buildings on Spreeinsel Island in Berlin, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1999. Despite the fact that the institutional buildings do not occupy the entire island, but only its northern tip, the exploration of the museum areas as well as the antiquities on display in them cannot be contained in the time frame of a standard guided tour. Accordingly, if you can’t wait to learn more about the unique artifacts of the Spreeinsel, you have to stay in Berlin for a couple of days.
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Museum Island can be called a hymn to the German passion for orderliness. And that’s not sarcasm. The idea to turn a marshy area in the middle of the Spree into the most “fishy” place in terms of visitors, placing the five best museums, could only occur to the descendants of Goethe and Schiller. However, the choice of location for museums was not entirely accidental. The history of Berlin began with the Spreeinsel, or rather, with the fishing village of Cologne (not to be confused with the city of the same name).
During its existence, Museum Island has experienced periods of both boom and bust. For example, during World War II, many of the collections of Berlin’s museums were either stolen or irretrievably lost in the destruction. As for the modern appearance of one of the most “profitable” attractions in Germany, it is still changing. Since the early 2000s, the area and buildings of Museum Island have been undergoing a renovation program, resulting in several new buildings on the north side of the Spreeinsel, and the former ones have been expanded and restored. The most notable structure of recent years is the James Simon Gallery. This snow-white structure with an elegant colonnade has not yet been commissioned, but in the near future will be the main entrance to the island, which will house an info center and an underground boulevard that will provide access to any of the five museums.
History of Museum Island
The starting point of the biography of one of Berlin’s biggest tourist attractions is the year 1797, when Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II and Art History professor Alois Hirt agreed to open an Antiquity Museum. The place for the future exhibition was chosen as the northern tip of the island of Spreeinsel, where the City Palace had already been built and the romantic Lustgarten Park had been laid out.
Work on the new buildings was delayed due to the difficult terrain – the Kupfergraben Canal had to be leveled. As a result, the first public institution on the Spreeinsel was the Old Museum, which was completed by 1830. Further things went a little faster. In 1859, the New Museum opened on the island, followed by the buildings of the Old National Gallery and the Bode Museum. The most overdue was the Pergamon Museum, which did not open its doors until 1930.
After the National Socialists came to power, the Museum Island received increased attention. Hitler’s Reichsministers and architects even managed to sketch a rough plan for the reconstruction of the Spreeinsel, where it was supposed to erect four more palaces for exhibitions. But with the beginning of World War II projects had to be shelved, the more so because by 1945 all the buildings on the island were in ruins – a total of 70% of the museum buildings were destroyed. Restore the historical objects in postwar Germany was in no hurry – there was no money. As a result, the first serious attempts to return the Museum Island to its former appearance were made in the late 80s, and the restoration of the exhibition halls and individual parts of buildings continues to this day.
Museums on the island
The old resident of Spreeinsel, the Old Museum, is identified by the Greek style in decoration and a row of Ionic columns. From 2000 to 2006 the building was under restoration, but today all the rooms of the institution are open to the public. It is worth visiting the Old Museum, which houses what is arguably the largest collection of ancient art in the world. Greek statues, faiumian portraits, Etruscan vases, as well as countless miniature (and not so many) statuettes from the category of “children under sixteen” – you’re impressed for a long time, even if you’re not a historian at all.
For more than half a century the object of heated debates of townspeople remained the New Museum. After the war the building was left untouched for a long time and as a result, the majestic ruins spoil the overall picture of Museum Island, which, of course, upset art historians. In the 80s, Berlin architects have restored the building, but with an unusual approach to the matter. To be more precise, the builders purposely avoided areas with worn plaster on the facade and smoked areas of the columns – according to architect David Chipperfield, it was the best solution because to restore the exterior and interior of the museum, it would have been necessary to distort its historic appearance. In addition, this deliberate incompleteness was meant to remind visitors of the country’s troubled past.
Today there are two permanent exhibitions in the New Museum – one on the culture and writing of ancient Egypt, and one on prehistory and early history. Both are worth a visit, if only because of the opportunity to see the legendary bust of Nefertiti and the pseudo-Trojan treasures unearthed by H. Schliemann on the shores of the Aegean Sea. Or rather, their skillful replicas, since the original ornaments were taken to the Soviet Union after the victory and were lost there.
The closest neighbor of the New Museum is the Old National Gallery. The beautiful and bright building with its Roman style apse has become the main repository of Prussian cultural heritage. The basis of the local collections consists of the works of Prussian artists with rare highlights such as masterpieces by Degas, Renoir, Cézanne and Manet. The most valuable exhibits of the museum are Böcklin’s Island of the Dead, Rodin’s The Thinker, and Manet’s In the Winter Garden.
The most striking representative of the neo-Baroque style, the Bode Museum was formerly known as the Kaiser Museum Friedrich III, since most of its exhibits at the time were owned by the king. Today, the Bode Museum is comprised of three museums – the Museum of Byzantine Art, the Coin Cabinet and the Sculpture Collection. The main object of pride for the restorers who worked on restoring the historic appearance of the building is the Tiepolo Cabinet, “resuscitated” with the help of a single photograph (the real cabinet with the original frescoes disappeared in the whirlwind of World War II).
The fifth “resident” of the Spreeinsel is the Pergamon, or Pergamon, the only museum on the island with a Russian audio guide. Originally the building was built for a single exhibit, the Pergamon Altar, scandalously removed from Asia Minor by German archaeologists. Later this unique work of art was joined by equally massive masterpieces of ancient architecture, such as the Ishtar Gate, the Babylonian Processional Road (reconstruction) and the Market Gate of Miletus. At this stage, the Pergamon Museum has three major collections – Classical Antiquities, Islamic Art, and Ancient Near Eastern Art.
Important: The Pergamon Altar is not available to the public until 2023 – restoration work is underway on the exhibit. To compensate for the lack of opportunity to admire the ancient structure, you can visit the panorama, which depicts and voices the daily life of the vanished city of Pergamos. The 24 meter long presentation canvas was created by the architect Yadegar Azizi and is considered to be the largest museum panorama in the world.
Rules of visit, opening hours, tickets
On Museum Island, photography of any exhibit is allowed, with the exception of the bust of Nefertiti. And this is not a standard formality. Tourists trying to surreptitiously capture the imperishable beauty of the queen of Egypt, are closely watched here. Moreover, keep in mind that some of the museums premises are still under restoration and not always available for viewing – the reconstruction project launched by the Berlin authorities, is still underway.
The museums on the Spreeinsel are open daily from 10:00 to 18:00. The exceptions are Thursday, when all institutions are open until 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, a public holiday. Admission tickets can be purchased at the ticket office on the spot – the cost from 10 to 12 EUR. If you have several expositions to visit, it is better to get Berlin Museum Pass for 29 EUR – for 3 days and has access to 30 city museums and exhibition halls, including the Museum Island.
How to get there
From Brandenburg Gate to Museum Island it is about 10-15 minutes on foot. An alternative to walking is to take the streetcars (routes, M1, M4, M5, M6) and get off at the Hackescher Markt stop. The closest U2 subway stations to the island are Spittelmarkt, Märkisches Museum, Klosterstraße, Hausfogtailplatz; the U6 station is Friedrichstraße. In addition, buses to Museum Island – routes 100, 147, 200.
Museum Island (Museumsinsel)
Museum Island Museums are mostly closed on Mondays. On Thursday open from 10 to 20 hours, on other days until 18 hours.
Museum Island in Berlin is the most popular attraction of the German capital. Here is a concentration of outstanding historical collection of art and cultural objects of the peoples of Europe and the Mediterranean. Museum Island exhibits show the development of culture in various countries over thousands of years.
Today, not only the museum collection, but also the museum island itself as an idea is the object of admiration by museum professionals and the many tourists who come to admire it from all over the world. In 1999, UNESCO included Museum Island in the list of World Cultural Heritage sites as “a unique ensemble of museum buildings, illustrating the history of the development of museum design for more than a century.
Museum Island showcases the cultural history of mankind through six centuries. From ancient Egypt, the Middle East, Ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Christian and Islamic art, to the European art of the XIX century.
Strictly speaking, the concept of “Museum Island” is somewhat relative. Once upon a time it was on the island of Spreeinsel, its present southern part, a settlement arose from which later grew Berlin. And the northern part of the island for a long time remained marshy. After it had been drained, it was decided to use it as a museum. Initially it was about a museum.
In the first third of the XIX century, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, in the capital of the Prussian kingdom, Berlin, began to gain popularity of freedom-loving ideas, the philosophy of humanism, education as a means to avoid revolutionary cataclysms. Under the motto, as we would say today: “Art to the masses”, the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III decided to establish a royal art collection. For this purpose, two of the largest art collections were bought from private collectors.
The outstanding architect Carl Friedrich Schinkel was commissioned to design and erect the museum building. The museum building was originally conceived as a temple of education, so Schinkel designed the museum in the image of an Athenian ancient Greek temple. In 1830, the Prussian Royal Museum (later renamed the Old Museum) opened its doors to the public. So began the history of the Museum Island. By the way, this name appeared only at the end of the XIX century.
Since the beginning of the reign of the next king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the idea of a “space for art and science” was realized. It was Carl Friedrich Schinkel who was invited to continue the work on the design of the whole museum complex. According to his designs, the Museum Island was to grow symmetrically to the royal palace opposite, as if continuing it with a park.
The palace was destroyed by the bombing of World War 2 and demolished during the GDR, and a gray concrete box of the Palace of the Republic was put in its place. After the reunification of Germany, the Palace of the Republic was also demolished. And now the restoration of the historic Hohenzollern Palace is almost complete. Now we will be able to appreciate Schinkel’s original design. The park opposite the royal palace – Lustgarten, today crowded. Here the citizens love to relax and there are always a lot of tourists.
Architects August Stuhler and Alfred Messel continued to work on the buildings of the Museum Island. In 1856 they finished work on the New Museum. Then, already in 1876 grew the building of the National Gallery, in 1904 – the Bode Museum (originally it was named after Kaiser Friedrich), and finally, in 1930, the building of the Pergamon Museum.
The beginning of the 20th century was marked by a surge of archaeological discoveries. Kaiser’s Germany funded numerous archaeological expeditions. The results of sensational discoveries demanded more and more space.
After the devastation of World War II, a large number of exhibits were lost. However, even today the funds of the museums are being replenished and, not surprisingly, Museum Island again lacks space. Now adopted Masterplan – a plan for the reconstruction of existing museums on the island and the construction of new buildings.
Berlin’s museums on Museum Island
On Museum Island there are several interesting exhibition locations that can take a few days to explore.
Today the Old Museum (Altes Museum) houses a collection of ancient art from the Greeks, Rome and the Etruscans – from the 1st century BC to the 11th century AD. Here you can see ancient sculptures from the corresponding era, vases, amphorae, jewelry made of gold and silver, coins.
In the New Museum (Neues Museum), a collection of ancient Egypt tells the four thousand years of the state’s history. Here is a unique collection of ancient papyri, sarcophagi, sculptures and jewelry of ancient Egypt. Must see the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti.
The second part of the New Museum is dedicated to the early history of Europe and Asia. Six thousand exhibits show the art of Rome, the Vikings, the famous finds from the excavations of Troy and much more.
Old National Gallery
In the Old National Gallery (Alte nationalgalerie) a collection of 19th- and 20th-century art is presented. There are works of German artists, French impressionists, sculptures of Italian, French and German masters of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Bode-Museum contains collections of Byzantine art – precious icons, mosaics, jewelry made of precious metals, a sculptural collection until the 19th century, a picture gallery of European art until the 19th century, and a fifteen-century coin collection.
The Pergamonmuseum displays famous antique buildings – the Pergamon Altar, the Miletian Gate, the facade of Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room, the Ishtar Gate, and other valuable exhibits, the results of excavations in Asia Minor and Greece.
Note the Pergamon Altar, one of the most famous exhibits in the Pergamon Museum, is under restoration until 2024.
And as a consolation to museum visitors, a 3D model of the Pergamon Altar has been created.
The North Wing and Hellenistic Architecture Hall will also be closed indefinitely.
- Pergamon Museum – 12 euros, concessionary 6 euros;
- Old Museum – 10 euros, concessionary 5 euros;
- New Museum – 12 euros, concessionary 6 euros;
- Old National Gallery – 12 euros, reduced price 6 euros;
- Bode Museum – 10 euros, concessionary 5 euros.
One-day ticket for all Museum Island Museums + Panorama – €19, concession €9.50.
Museum – Pass 3 Tage Ticket or Card for 3 days – €29, discount €14.50.
Children up to and including 18 years of age are free of charge. Students are entitled to a discount ticket on presentation of an international student card.
Going around all five museums in one day is practically impossible. It is not easy to do it in three days. In any case, it is worth as early as possible in the morning to start looking around, preliminarily oriented in a variety of collections of museums and choose the most interesting to them. Then you have a better chance to see the maximum number of museum treasures, and most likely you can avoid the lines at the ticket office.
How to get to Museum Island
Museum Island is located in the heart of Berlin. It is easily accessible by any means of transport. Two pedestrian bridges lead to the island, and there is a bridge between the Pergamon Museum and the Bode Museum for electric trains.
On public transport
- Metro – Line U6 to the stop Fridrichstasse.
- S-Bahn (S-Bahn) – S1, S2, S25, S26 to the Fridrichstasse stop S3, S5, S7, S9 to the Hackersche Markt stop.
- Streetcar – M1, 12 to stop Am Kupfergraben, M4, M5, M6 to stop Hackersche Markt.
- Bus 200, 248, 265 to Fischerinsel stop, 100, 245, 300 to Lüstgarten stop, 147 to Fridrichstrasse stop.
Please note that there is no parking on Museum Island. The closest ones are the parking garage of the Radisson Blu Hotel, on the east bank of the River Spree, or the garage of the International Trade Center on the other side.
Uber cabs are a convenient way to get to Museum Island. If you download the app, you can always use the map to find the nearest car.