Museumsinsel – Museum Island: Berlin's Treasure Island

Museumsinsel – Museum Island, in Berlin is in the heart of the Spree River, the half square mile island is home to five museums. Photo: Museumsinsel Island Spree River Berlin / UNESCO

BERLIN, January 5, 2013 – In most major European cities, a museum visit is part of every tour itinerary. In London,   it’s probably the National Gallery or the Tate, in Paris certainly the Louvre, in  Madrid  the  Museo del Prado.  In Berlin, however, it’s not just a single museum that is a “must” to any visit.

Instead, it’s  Museumsinsel – Museum Island.  That’s right.  In the heart of the city is a island, less than a  half square mile in area, in the Spree River on which are located five museums. There are no other structures, commercial or otherwise, on the island; just the museums.  Access from nearby subway, bus and tram stops is via five pedestrian bridges; no private vehicles are permitted on the island.

Together this site, whimsically dubbed “Berlin’s Treasure Island” was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1999. In fact, local authorities consider their Museum Island to be one of the world’s greatest museum complexes. They are also one of the city’s more popular cultural attractions, drawing some 3.4 million visitors each year.

Museumsinsel - Museum Island, Berlin, Germany (Images courtesy UNESCO/ (Click to enlarge)

Museumsinsel - Museum Island, Berlin, Germany (Images courtesy UNESCO/ (Click to enlarge)

The structures themselves were built between 1824 and 1930 and are distinguished for a number of reasons.  Firstly they represent what is considered the “evolution of modern museum design.” The point made is that most of Europe’s great museums were, in fact, originally royal palaces that in time were converted into museums.  The structures on Museum Island, however, were believed to be the first specifically designed to house, originally at least, the private collections of the Prussian royal family which is the second of its unique characteristics. 

It was King Friedrich Wilhelm who had what was called “a romantic vision” for arts and sciences that he hoped would be compared to the Forum in ancient Rome.  Built as a result in 1830 was the Altes  (Old) Museum.  It was followed in 1859 by the Neues  (new) Museum built on the order of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, this time to house collections of Egyptian and prehistoric art.

Those two were followed in succeeding years by the Alte Nationalgaler (Old National Gallery) in 1876 to house 19th century European, mainly German collections.  But also to be found here also are Impressionist paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne and sculptures by Rodin. The Baroque style Bode Museum opened in 1904 offering collections of European Renaissance art.  The final and something of a crown jewel of the Museum Island is the Pergamon Museum opened in 1930.  It houses artefacts from the storied empires of Babylonia, Assyria and Mesopotamia gathered by German archeologists working in what today are Iraq, Syria and Turkey. 

While formally considered the Museum of Western Asiatic Antiquities, this Pergamon wing takes its name from the spectacular reconstruction of the 6th Century B.C. Babylonian Great Altar of Pergamon. It shares the public’s awe with the Market Gate of Miletus and the Ishtar Gate.

Just because these are world-class institutions, doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. This  past spring, one gallery of the Bode Museum was converted into a theater for a whimsical interpretation of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”  With  obviously no room for a conventional stage, the performance was given on an elevated runway, much like that used for fashion shows.  The audience sat on folding chairs on both sides of the ramp with the first row just a matter of six feet from the singers. The orchestra, made up of selected members of the Berlin Symphony, was at one end of the runway while at the opposite end, the artists made their entrances up a ramp from an improvised “back stage” in an adjoining gallery. 

Museumsinsel - Museum Island, Berlin, Germany (Images courtesy UNESCO/ (Click to enlarge)

Museumsinsel - Museum Island, Berlin, Germany (Images courtesy UNESCO/ (Click to enlarge)

Given the age of the five museum buildings, the fate of Berlin during World War II and its division during the Cold War that followed, it’s no surprise that they barely survived.  Anticipating Allied bombings at the start of World War II, German authorities removed most of the art collections. In the violent years that followed, some works were looted, other lost and some ended up in Moscow. (Good luck in getting them back.)

The buildings themselves were extensively damaged  by aerial attack and then from the Russian assault on Berlin itself that ended World War II in Europe. In addition, since the Museum Island was located in the Communist eastern half of Berlin after the war, behind the Berlin Wall  and thus controlled by the Soviet Union, they suffered considerable neglect as well as the terrible battle damage..Today the great grey columns  of the Neues Museum  remain pocked marked by shrapnel from tank fire and even inside the grand galleries some walls were intentionally left laced by bullet holes. “The architect didn’t want to cover all of them over, to remind us of our dark past,” explains one local. 

Only upon the reunification of Germany in 1990 could the Federal government move to restore and, in some cases, reconstruct the five museums.  A master 15-year plan was drawn up and work on the reconstruction and modernization began in earnest around 12 years ago. To date the effort has cost the Federal government more than $2 billion and is still not yet finished.  It was only just three years ago, with the completion of the restoration of the Neues Museum, that all five of the museums were opened at the same time.  And by no means is the renewal of Museum Island completed.

Still in work is an Archeological Promenade, something of a circuit linking the five separate museums and offering visitors cafes, a museum shop and other facilities that will make the Museum Island an even more significant cultural destination in its own right. 

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Norman Sklarewitz

As a freelance journalist, Norman Sklarewitz brings to his work for the Washington Times' Communities a professional background that began as a police reporter for Chicago's City News Bureau and went on to include the position of  Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. As such  he reported on major political, economic and social events of international significance from throughout Asia including the Vietnam War. Subsequently, he joined U.S. News & World Report as Los Angeles Bureau Chief. 

Since he moved on to freelance, he's published thousands of articles on a wide variety of topics for consumer, trade, airline inflights, special interest and corporate magazines and for newspaper travel sections.  These outlets also include periodicals published in Asia and Europe.

He is a graduate of Indiana University and holds a master's degree from the University of Southern California. He served three years in the U.S. Army during World War II, two years (1944-45) of which were in the European Theater of Operations where he was a military correspondent. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Esther.


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