The museums’ new meta-structure rearranges the collections into a singular heritage and drags visitors through a prescribed promenade designed to encourage consumption of coffees as much as culture
Berlin’s Museumsinsel, Museum Island, is currently home to two contentious projects. The first is the ‘reconstruction’ of a Baroque palace on the site of the bronze-glazed Palast der Republik, the building, built in 1974, which housed the East German parliament until 1989. It is the most prominent example of a movement to demolish East German Modernist buildings and replace them with structures that look older. The second contentious project − the focus of this article − is a new museum, 200 metres further south and due for completion in 2015.
Museumsinsel was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 − not just for the architecture of its five museum buildings and the global significance of their exhibits, but also because the island displays the history of the very idea of the museum. Its group of buildings stand for the Enlightenment conception of the museum: cultural treasures assembled for public edification, located symbolically at the centre of the city and celebrated for their contribution to a (supposedly) universal knowledge. The first of the island’s museums, Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s remarkable Altes Museum − built in 1828 and an inspiration to generations of architects − is arguably the clearest diagram of this idea: its central public rotunda, once open to the air, offering immediate access directly into the galleries housing Etruscan, Greek and Roman treasures. It was joined in 1859 by the Neues Museum, in 1876 by the Greek fantasy of the Alte Nationalgalerie, a temple sat on its own acropolis and, in 1904, by what is now the Bode Museum, a neo-Baroque edifice surrounded on three sides by water. The most recent addition, until now, was the Pergamonmuseum completed in 1930 − housing the trophies of excavations at Pergamon and other sites − tailored around some outsize exhibits. Each successive building reflected developments in museological fashion and conservation practice. The exhibits became located further from the street, increasingly larger foyers were designed and sequences of galleries and exhibits were more explicitly curated. Each had a greater percentage of space devoted to infrastructure and ancillary spaces, adding more offices, conservation studios and visitor facilities. Chipperfield’s forthcoming project − the sixth substantial building to join this group − demonstrates a radical extension of these trajectories.
Chipperfield’s design follows his office’s 2009 restoration of the Neues Museum, completed in association with Julian Harrap. It is named the James-Simon-Galerie; perhaps a misnomer because galleries are an almost incidental part of the programme. This is instead a ‘reception building’ which will ‘offer [visitors] orientation and direct them to the highlights’. Rather than dealing with individual buildings, Berlin State Museums have decided to market the complex together, selling visitors a single entrance ticket. As part of their masterplan, tunnels will be built to connect the five existing museums and access them from the sixth. This reflects the current museological vogue for ‘cultural quarters’; visitor attractions marketed together and intended to occupy visitors for a whole day so they can consume meals, coffee and shopping as well as culture. To this end, the James-Simon-Galerie will contain ‘an information and ticket office area, cloakrooms, an auditorium, a museum shop, space for temporary exhibitions, a café and a restaurant’.
Just as the five museums’ exhibits have become more explicitly curated over time, the museums are now to be curated themselves. The new building, and its associated tunnels, will provide a single access point, a singular orientation for the museums’ new meta-structure. Any organisation of exhibits in a museum, or books in a library, describes a classification of knowledge and therefore outlines an epistemology. This reorganisation of the Museumsinsel, which restructures the galleries and the exhibits they house, reconceptualises them according to a new, singular, epistemology. No longer are the museums’ individual collections of distinctive treasures with each artefact yielding potential lessons. Instead, they are brought together as a brand, re-oriented as a singular ‘heritage’, made representative of a ‘past’ (whenever or wherever that might have been) sold for entertainment and consumption. Thought-provoking chance encounters with exhibits, discovered by the visitor in the original Altes Museum by choosing one of the multiple doors in Schinkel’s rotunda, is substituted with a prescribed promenade through a heritage experience, buried deep in a ticketed complex of tunnels.
‘This reflects the current museological vogue for ‘cultural quarters’; visitor attractions marketed together and intended to occupy visitors for a whole day’
The new building itself, understood as the sixth museum in the architectural sequence on the island, remains striking even when appreciated independently of its tunnel network. At the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (1977-83), James Stirling famously reimagined Schinkel’s rotunda as a cookie cutter to bore a hole out of the city block, employing its drum as a public circus on a route across the site. Chipperfield has inverted this architectural diagram in Berlin. The James-Simon-Galerie’s whole interior effectively becomes the public space, the equivalent of the void which Schinkel designed and which Stirling cut-out in Stuttgart. All is rotunda in this new museum, all is void.
In 1988, Saatchi & Saatchi helped London’s V&A Museum to rebrand − in a controversial campaign − as ‘An Ace Caff with Quite a Nice Museum Attached’. In the context of the sixth museum on the Museumsinsel − which represents today’s values in a historical sequence recording the development of the museum − this slogan seems strangely prescient. The James-Simon-Galerie is effectively an ace caff without much museum attached. The caff − and the restaurant − will undoubtedly be ace, with stunning views over the River Spree and the existing museums. The foyers will allow visitor groups to buy their passes in comfort and to browse the gift shops at leisure. The building contains all the retail opportunities favoured by the keepers of contemporary museums with few of the conservation and environmental difficulties caused by the troublesome display of artefacts and their awkward multiple interpretations. In its focus on infrastructure, in its crystallisation of a new − singular − heritage epistemology, in its devotion to revenue generation, this sixth building is the logical extension of the shifts evident in the first five on the island. Whether or not the managers of heritage businesses would admit it, Chipperfield’s new Berlin museum − largely devoid of content but rich with revenue earning opportunity − is arguably the ultimate contemporary museum. It says as much about our time and culture as Schinkel’s building said about his.
‘Chipperfield’s new Berlin museum − largely devoid of content but rich with revenue earning opportunity − is arguably the ultimate contemporary museum’