Berlin’s Museuminsel is an archipelago of culture situated right in the heart of the city. Built beside the river Spree, the Museuminsel, or Museum Island, comprises five heritage buildings, each of which is home to some of the most exclusive works of art in the world. The oldest structure here, the Altes Museum (Old Museum), dates back to 1830, while the newest, the Pergamonmuseum, was inaugurated exactly a hundred years later, in 1930. As of now, the Museum Island is at the centre of what could well be one of the biggest and most ambitious public works project dedicated to cultural infrastructure globally.
The Masterplan Museuminsel involves thorough restoration work on all the existing buildings, as well as new construction projects to further expand the size of the complex. A new underground walkway is also being built here with a view to interconnecting four of the five main buildings of this complex, to provide easy access to visitors. Estimated costs for this publicly funded project run into hundreds of millions of Euros, if not more. But what’s really astonishing is the projected timeline for the work—which stretches not into years but spans whole decades. This kind of dedication to cultural projects is rarely seen in this day and age, and maybe other world capitals, including Delhi, could take a cue from Berlin and learn a lesson or two about getting their cultural houses in order.
To get a better sense of the Masterplan Museuminsel, Guardian 20 spoke to Dr Ralf Nitschke, head of construction planning for the General Directorate of the National Museums in Berlin (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation).
Q. To begin with, could you give us a brief overview of the Masterplan Museuminsel? What exactly does it entail?
A. Masterplan Museumsinsel mainly involves the reconstruction of the five ancient museum buildings on this island in the river Spree, in the city center of Berlin. But there are two other important points involved: first of all, a new central entrance building is being built in the complex, since we want to reassign most space in the old buildings to the exhibition areas, and we are trying to shift most of the basic functions, like ticketing, cafes etc. to this new building, which will become the central entrance for all collections on Museumsinsel. However, the old buildings will still retain their original entrances and small ticket counters. The second major point of the Masterplan is the construction of the Archeological Promenade: like an underground passage, it will be connecting four of the five buildings in the future.
Q. In which year was the master plan first introduced? And why did this complex need an infrastructural upgrade on this ambitious a scale?
A. The plan was introduced in 1999. At that point, nearly all the five buildings here were in a poor condition and needed architectural upgrades. Also, the weather and the climate had taken their toll, and these issues needed addressing. The whole Museum Island is an old structure—there are some 100 years between the Altes Museum, designed by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and the Pergamonmuseum, by Alfred Messel. Today, between Messel’s building and the new one designed by David Chipperfield, scheduled to open in 2019, there will be another 100 years. So with this master plan, our aim is to make the conditions here perfect – both for the artworks housed here and for the thousands of visitors who come to Museum Island every day.
Q. What’s the deadline for this master plan? When can we expect the overall upgrade project to end?
A. This is difficult to answer. The reconstruction of Pergamonmuseum, for example, is a project which is divided into two phases. At this moment, the museum’s northern wing is under reconstruction, while the southern wing is still open for visitors. We hope to reopen the northern wing in 2024. Afterwards, we will start to reconstruct the southern wing, which again will take a couple of years. After this, we can start to reconstruct the Altes Museum. So you can imagine that the finishing line is still some years away.
Q. More like some decades away.
A. Yes. Our next landmark is the opening of the James-Simon-Galerie in 2019. Followed by the reopening of the Pergamonmuseum in 2024.
Q. So there is no fixed deadline at all?
A. No. Masterplan Museumsinsel is a process for decades. Restoring World Heritage buildings can cost a lot, both in terms of time and money. You simply cannot restore all buildings at the same time. You have to do it step by step.
Q. Could you tell us about the financing of this project? Who is your main sponsor?
A. We are financed by the state of Germany, and also by the Federal States (in German: Laender). One part of the budget is provided by the state, the other by all the federal regions.
Q. Could this be the world’s biggest infrastructural upgrade plan for culture?
A. I’m not sure. The reconstruction of the Louvre in Paris was also a very ambitious project.
Q. But it didn’t quite take half a century to complete, which is what we are looking at here in Berlin?
A. That’s true. Museumsinsel has always been—and will remain—a project for generations.
Q. What about support from the civil society? How do you respond to those who say that this project is too expensive for the tax payer, and too long-drawn, with all those missed deadlines?
A. You can’t generalise on this point and you have to speak about every single building on the island. Last year, we had to tell the public that the reconstruction of Pergamonmuseum will take longer than what had been planned. Originally, our plan was to reopen it in 2021. And it will also cost more than was originally planned. There are many reasons for that. One thing is that the building ground, the foundation, of Museumsinsel is possibly the worst in Berlin. Not only because of the river Spree, but also because of the uneven terrain. Underneath the Neues Museum, for example, in the one corner, we have stable ground at the depth of three metres, while at the other corner, stable ground is to be found forty metres deep. In former times wooden pillars had to be used to level the foundation. Under the southern wing of Pergamonmuseum, the base was so uneven that the architects had to build a bridge to level the foundation in the 1930s. Therefore restoring or construction work on the island requires very special skills. And not everyone can do this. It takes some time to find builders we can work with. Recently, one of our big contract partners faced a financial disaster, and we had to look for a new one, which took around six months. This is also one of those factors that can delay the project.
Q. But there’s also the criticism that the state’s resources should be directed more towards basic infrastructure – health, transport, etc. —than to cultural institutions. In a city like Delhi or Mumbai, such a museum upgrade project would cause an uproar. Did you get enough support from the residents of Berlin?
A. Yes, the people of Berlin support us a lot. Besides, if you look at the budget allocation of governments, only a small part is spent on culture. If you compare it to the amount spent on, say, defence or health, the amount is rather small. But we are very happy that the German Government and the Federal States enable us to preserve our cultural heritage.
Q. What can other cities learn from Berlin in terms of developing, preserving and upgrading cultural infrastructure?
A. I think we can all learn from each other. At the beginning of the year we visited London and met our colleagues at the British Museum, the Tate Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum. At all these big museums, there is some building activity going on. So it becomes very important for us to talk to colleagues and to learn from them.