Power and Representation II: Neues Museum Berlin: History, Concept and Significance
Zhou Tianyu (Renmin University of China, Beijing)
Talking about the preservation, restoration and reconstruction of historical monuments and other issues related to the continuation of the value of cultural relics, the discussion often leads to a debate around “new” versus “old” or “ancient” versus “contemporary”. This often involuntarily changes to a identity paradox like that of the Ship of Theseus. The Charter of Venice promulgated in 1964 provided general guidance for the protection of historical sites and cultural heritage, while at the same time designating the bottom line for the protection of historical relics. Virtually, with the differing conditions of cultural relics, the need to adopt the preservation and repair programs is also subject to cultural, social and economic background factors, making these questions even more complicated. The restoration and reconstruction of the New Museum in Berlin has given us many revelations about the history of concepts on the value of cultural relics.
The New Museum is the second museum which was built on Berlin’s museum island. The old museum, built in 1830, soon had difficulties to accommodate the growing collection of ancient artifacts and the increasing numbers of visitors, so the New Museum came into being. It was designed by architect Friedrich August Stüler. As a pupil of the old museum’s architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Stüler continued the neo-classical Greek style of the courtyard with its centralized layout and dignified and elegant atmosphere. He also designed the connecting three-story central staircase, which became the core of the museum’s structure, and was in stark contrast to the rigid facade.
The Neoclassicist architectural style was very popular at the time, appearing as a standard since the Enlightenment with the appreciation of the ancient classical form in European social and cultural life. The 1753 opened British Museum is a more typical example for this form of enthusiasm. The appreciation of ancient relics during the Renaissance, and the “worship of ruins” of the 17th century together formed the foundation of the Enlightenment’s praise for classical culture and of the interest in ancient civilizations outside of Europe. Therefore, public museums were popular in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Austrian art historian Alois Riegl stated: “The 19th century is the century of historical value.”
Museums now became a place to preserve cultural relics and set historical values. Museum buildings, their interiors and exhibitions, as well as their collections of cultural relics, together constituted an entity of time and space which fused with retrospective history, unearthed historical and artistic values and an experience of the historical scene. The design of the New Museum is especially typical for this. The walls of the three-story exhibition space were decorated by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and other painters from Berlin. They created a number of large-scale frescoes with rigorous perspective painting in a realistic style. The main part of the museum’s collection are the ancient Egyptian relics. The murals and interiors of their exhibition hall are quite luxurious and exquisite. The hall is designed with antique Egyptian temple pillars, their surface decorated with shallow reliefs and hieroglyphs. The frescoes all around simulate the scenery outside the temple, like the sun setting under the palace or the waters of the Royal Garden. It is interesting to note that the hieroglyphs written on the pillars do not have real significance, but are just some pictographic characters combined for decorative use. The Egyptian hall strives to create a sensory effect, essentially aiming to re-create a historical sense and exotic feeling for European eyes. This sense of history contains a layer of curiosity, for hunting novelty of distant times and faded civilizations. The establishment of the national public museum not only became a window to show the advanced national concept, but also to reflect the superiority of national power in the historical and cultural aspects. It shows that the King of Prussia wanted to make Berlin an “Athens on the Spree”, with the ambition to make the museum island known as the “Northern Acropolis”.
In Riegl’s opinion, the preservation of cultural relics and the understanding of their value are within a historical process as well. In his eyes, monuments can be divided into three stepwise categories: “intentional monuments”, which the people intended to create to commemorate humanity’s outstanding achievements or significant events; “historical monuments”, which are unconscious creations of the ancients, or without purpose of commemorating human performance or events; and “monuments of mere age-value”, which embodies all the artifacts over time, without the need for subjective purpose and meaning. The latter two categories can also be called “unintentional monuments”. For intentional monuments, the commemorative value is determined by the producer. While the value of the unintentional cultural relics is determined by us. The modern concept of preserving cultural relics originated in the Renaissance, with people’s conscious appreciation of ancient cultural relics. Patriotic and ancestral connotations prompted people in Italy to be interested in intentional monuments especially, and they began to give them historical value. After the 17th century, artists were keen to depict ruins, and people had a great interest for “unintentional” cultural relics. The museums emerging in the Enlightenment were actively acquiring, collecting and displaying relics, and were not limited to historically memorable objects. The design and construction of the museum island became a symbol for the large-scale collection of historical relics in Germany. People were interested in studying the historical and artistic information stored in these formerly ordinary objects. This information is often selected and identified by the people, so Riegl said such artifacts respond to the modern Kunstwollen.
Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of World War II, the New Museum had to be closed in 1939. In the bombings of 1943, the central staircase suffered the greatest damage. It was completely blown up. The 1945 bombings damaged the southeast dome and northwest wing. After the war, the museum was in ruins, and post-1950 reconstruction work neglected the building at first. In 1980 the first preparations for the museum’s protection and repairs started. When Berlin wall was torn down and Germany re-unified, the New Museum was really taking these procedures up. In 1993, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) held a global design competition for the reconstruction of the New Museum. After several years, in 1997, a thorough reconstruction program finally saw the light of day. The British David Chipperfield eventually won the bid. After thorough repairs and reconstructions, the New Museum once again opened in 2009.
Chipperfield has taken a comprehensive account of the history and the environment of the new museum’s ruins. The reconstruction program has ruled out three possibilities: 1. Creating a new building. 2. Restoring the building in its original image from old records. 3. Repairing the original building, still keeping the damaged parts. The first option would be building a modernist replica, and the second and third would confine the museum in one period of history, failing to show the building’s contemporary value and vitality. Therefore Chipperfield came up with his concept of “continuity”, explaining: “continuity means that the idea of the building has some notion of continuity between history and place…We occupy a moment between the past and the future. And it is necessary for us to look backwards to go forwards. I think it is necessary for us not to imitate the past, but not to forget it.” The reconstruction of the new museum also follows a principle which can be summarized as “protecting in favor of rebuilding and perpetuating the authenticity of history”.
In the reconstruction program, the formerly lost staircase uses the simplest design. The selected materials are white cement mixed with Saxon marble aggregate. The staircase structure is reconstructed in a modernistic minimalist style, disturbing the original masonry through visual effect in a small degree. The other wall structures also use the most basic and plain materials – brick and concrete. On the basis of structural reconstruction, the repairs used broken brick tiles that were left from before 1997 the clean-up as raw material. They were placed in their original positions from the 19th century. While retaining most traces of fires from World War II, there are still mottled walls and even faintly visible black burns. This forms a very strong visual contrast, as if the gray modern style staircase was leading to another time and space, superimposing multiple layers of history. The legacy of the 19th century and the scars of the 20th century coexist with reconstructions from the 21st century. Restoration of the Egyptian hall was done in a similar manner. After rebuilding the main structure with handmade bricks, the construction team collected and utilized fragments of the murals spared from the bombings and reinstalled them on the original wall. After the meticulous repair of the fragments, the beautifully painted palace window scene made for a vivid impression. The incomplete mural still gives a glimpse of the exotic atmosphere created in the 19th century originally. This kind of restoration and presentation, juxtaposing accumulated layers of history, in fact shows people’s attention and appreciation on “monuments of mere age-value”. The age difference itself is leaving clues on the cultural relics, giving off implicit and profound meaning.
Chipperfield’s program is a good way to balance two different methods of reconstruction and restoration. There is full use of original components and debris to maintain their materiality and to extend the cultural vein of the architectural space. The new parts of the building however do not imitate the old ones, but are rather reflecting the incomplete factor by manufacturing contrasting effects. At the same time, the style of the old components is not concealed. This follows the principles of protection and repair emphasized in the Venice Charter.
As a result, the paradox of Theusus is also effectively responded to: The ship is the ship, and the focus is not on material identity, but rather on the ship itself carrying historical identity. If the old materials are recombined, then it becomes a new ship, since it has never experienced and shared the history of the original ship of Theusus. It also lacks of the historical continuity of the original one. The New Museum in Berlin takes full advantage of its historical fragments, maintaining the identity of the material on one hand, with the repair plan and its “continuity” concept for the recording and preserving of the different stages of its real history, and on the other hand also consolidating the New Museum’s historical identity. The 19th century antique decorative debris of the wall, the trauma caused by the destruction of the war years, the early 21st century reconstruction of the modernist staircase, all are part of the museum’s indelible history. Different times treat cultural relics with different concepts. They represent the novelty and alienation in regard to history, the feelings on war’s destruction of civilization, utilitarianism in regard to history, and then facing up and forgiving to the past. The museum turned from a place of “showing history” into a place of “constructing history”. The history of its identity will continue further.
The classification and insights on the evolution of the concept of cultural relics, as well as the museum’s restoration concept of continuity coincide with Italian historian Benedetto Croce’s assertion that “All true history is contemporary history.” When cultural relics become part of the museum display, the museum itself also becomes a cultural signifier of the era. The original meaning of the cultural relics may eventually be remnant. But when they are the key to recourse to the state of the past, they once again become the material for producing new history. And the ideas of contemporary museum visitors on the past’s artifacts become part of history itself. The New Museum in Berlin is still the New Museum, from the 19th century museum display and exhibition venues, to the ruins of World War II, and to its Phoenix-like rise of today. It is the protagonist of the story. It is recording the story and narrating it, while at the same time also writing a new story.
Translated by Konrad Winkler
周天宇 中国人民大学 北京
公共博物馆成为文物遗迹保存和沉淀历史价值的集中场所。博物馆建筑、内饰和展陈设计以及馆藏文物共同构成了回溯历史、挖掘历史价值（包括艺术价值）、体验历史场景的时间、空间统一体。柏林新博物馆的设计尤为典型。建筑内部的主要空间中，三层展览空间的墙壁由Wilhelm Von Kaulbach等多位柏林著名的晚期古典主义画家执笔进行装饰，以严谨的透视画法，精湛的写实风格创作了数幅大型场景壁画。博物馆最主要藏品是古埃及遗物，古埃及展厅的壁画和内饰相当豪华精美。厅内设计了仿古的埃及神庙石柱，表面装饰着浅浮雕和象形文字。四周墙面的整幅壁画模拟了神庙窗外的风景，用严谨的透视效果表现出夕阳下的宫殿或水边的皇家后花园。有趣的是，石柱上刻写的象形文字并不具有真实意义，仅是将一些象形字符组合起来，起到装饰作用。而这恰恰反映出，柏林新博物馆埃及厅努力营造出的感官效果，实质上主要是再造一种当时欧洲人眼中的异域风情和历史感。而这种历史感则包含一层对一去不复返的遥远时代和风光不再的遥远文明的猎奇。建立国家型公共博物馆不仅成为展示国家先进理念的窗口，也成为体现国家力量在历史文化层面的优越感的展示。它彰显着普鲁士国王将柏林打造成“施普雷河畔的雅典”，将博物馆岛称为“北方的卫城”的雄心壮志。
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