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Artworks vandalized on Berlin’s Museum Island

  • October 21, 2020

The discovery of extensive damage to artworks and artifacts on Berlin’s Museum Island — the city’s cultural center —  is yet to be explained as a senseless act of vandalism, or a crime meant to send a message. 

On Wednesday morning, police confirmed reports by German media, including newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, that unknown perpetrators sprayed oily liquid on at least 70 objects in the Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and other locations. Authorities have so far declined to provide further details. 

Media reports indicated that the crime had occurred nearly three weeks ago, on October 3, which was German Unity Day and the 30th anniversary of reunification between East and West Germany. Whether the day was deliberately chosen remains a mystery. 

The act of vandalism was “one of the most extensive attacks on works of art and antiquities in the history of post-war Germany,” wrote German daily Die Zeit. Among the damaged pieces are Egyptian sarcophagi, stone sculptures, and 19th-century paintings. The liquid has left visible stains on the artworks and artifacts. 

The Pergamon Altar with its large columns (SMB/DW/C. Albuquerque)

The Pergamon Museum with its Pergamon Altar from the 2nd century B.C. was one of the museums targeted in the attack

Authorities remained silent for nearly three weeks

The question remains as to why authorities remained silent about the crime for nearly three weeks. According to Tagesspiegel, the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) wrote to people who had visited the museums on October 3 and asked if they had seen anything suspicious. A preliminary investigation into the property damage has since been opened.

October 3 was the first day the museum had been open since March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic forced it to shut its doors. 

The five museums that make up Museum Island in the heart of Berlin are among the most important museums in the country, with the cultural complex becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

The Pergamon Museum celebrated its 90th birthday at the beginning of October, and is one of the most popular museums in Germany, attracting roughly 1 million visitors per year —  thanks to the Pergamon Altar which dates back to the 2nd century B.C.

Security at Museum Island has been the subject of ongoing criticism. In 2017, a gang succeeded in stealing a 100-kilogram (200 pound) gold coin called “Big Maple Leaf” valued at 3.75 million euros ($4.38 million) from the Bode Museum. The elaborate heist involved a ladder, wheelbarrow and getaway car. 

sh/qu/rb (with dpa)

  • Berlin's Altes Museum (Old Museum) (picture-alliance/imagebroker/J. Woodhouse)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    Unique museum landscape

    The Altes Museum (Old Museum) is the founding building of the famous museum complex on the Spree Island. In 1830 it was the first public museum to be opened in Prussia. It was followed by the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode-Museum and lastly, in 1930, the Pergamon Museum. Since 1999, the entire complex has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

  • A wide angle view of the rotunda at Berlin's Altes Museum (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Link)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    The Pantheon in Berlin

    The Altes Museum (Old Museum) houses statues, weapons, gold and silver jewelry of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. It does not only show ancient treasures but with its columns and splendid halls, it is also reminiscent of the epoch. The heart of the building is the rotunda, which is designed according to the model of the ancient Pantheon in Rome.

  • A museum visitor looks at the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin's Neues Museum

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    The star of the Museum Island

    The five museums were largely destroyed during the Second World War. The Neues Museum, which remained in ruins for a long time, was hit particularly hard. It remained closed to visitors until 2009. It presents exhibits from prehistory and early history as well as the Middle Ages. One exhibit is particularly famous: the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.

  • Neues Museum, Museum Island, Berlin, Germany, Europe (picture-alliance/imagebroker/S. Kuttig)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    A temple dedicated to art

    The Old National Gallery, a replica of a Greek temple, looks particularly sublime. In front is the equestrian statue of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who made the first sketches for the building’s design. The museum shows paintings and sculptures from Goethe’s time of Weimar Classicism to realism. The masterpieces include works by Caspar David Friedrich, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir.

  • Berlin's Bode-Museum on the Spree River, a view of the TV tower in the distance (picture-alliance/ZB/K. Schindler)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    Neo-baroque on the Spree island

    The neo-baroque Bode Museum, which rises like a moated castle on the tip of the Museum Island, is frequently photographed. It houses, among other things, Byzantine art, sculptures and paintings from the 13th to 18th centuries as well as a coin collection. All the artistic styles of a given period are displayed here together. The museum thus follows the concept of its founder, Wilhelm von Bode.

  • Berlin's the Pergamonmuseum under reconstruction (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    Construction Site: Pergamonmuseum

    Since 2014, the Pergamon Hall with its famous antique frieze has no longer been open to the public. The most famous museum on the island is being completely renovated. The construction work should be finished by 2025 at the latest.

  • The blue Ishtar Gate at Berlin's Pergamon Museum (picture-alliance/360-Berlin/J. Knappe)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    Antique splendour in the Pergamon Museum

    Despite the ongoing restoration, visitors can still see the blue Ishtar Gate (above), a Processional Way from Babylon, and the famous market gate of Miletus. They are among the highlights along with the Pergamon Altar. The Pergamon Museum was the last of the five exhibition houses to be built. Its impressive exhibits make it the most visited museum in Berlin.

  •  Masterpieces of the ancient metropolis and 360° panorama of Yadegar Asisi.

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    Pergamon in 360 degrees

    Nevertheless, visitors to Berlin do not have to forgo seeing the famous Pergamon Altar. Since November 2018, the artist Yadegar Asisi has been presenting a huge panorama picture in a temporary exhibition building opposite the Bode Museum that stages the city of Pergamon with its altar in Roman times around 129 AD.

  • James Simon Gallery on Berlin's Museum Island (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    A monumental waterfront visitor center

    The newest building on Museum Island is the James Simon Gallery by star architect David Chipperfield, which opened on July 12, 2019. It is the central reception and service building for all five exhibition halls. With around 2.5 million visitors annually, Berlin’s Museum Island is one of the biggest crowd-pullers in Germany.

  • A view of Berlin's Museum Island from above (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    A master plan for the Museum Island

    The James Simon Gallery was built as part of a master plan to renovate and modernize the Museum Island. With the new central visitor center and the Archaeological Promenade, the individual museums are to grow together to form a common complex.

  • Berlin: Museum Island on the Spree with Bodemuseum and the television tower (picture-alliance/C. Reister)

    Berlin’s Museum Island celebrates 20 years of UNESCO status

    Museum Island: UNESCO World Heritage Site

    Today the collections unite 6,000 years of human history. This earned Berlin’s Museum Island the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. With 2.3 million visitors annually, the Museum Island is a tourist highlight in Berlin. A stroll across the Museum Island is definitely worthwhile — even before the reopening of the Pergamon Museum in 2025.

    Author: Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg

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